Pablo Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia Orchestra presented a beautiful evening of French music. Both orchestra and conductor were on top form throughout. None of the items was given in an impressionistic wash of sound but instead played as music with crisp rhythms, textured layers and vivid colour, all laid out with exquisite care. One remembered that Heras-Casado had been a student of Pierre Boulez.
The quiet descending motif at the opening of the Prelude to Rapsodie espagnole was beautifully delineated to create the appropriate nocturnal atmosphere and the following woodwind created an almost incantatory feel. The Malaguena had brisk fandango rhythms contrasting with an elegant cor anglais solo (Jill Crowther) and the Habanera was beguiling with the subtlety of Ravel’s orchestration well brought out. The surging dance rhythms of the Feria also had touches of humour before reaching its final blazing conclusion.
Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, one of his greatest works, followed, and was played by Denis Kozhukhin in a big-scale performance notable for a sense of rhythmic propulsion from both pianist and orchestra. The opening of double basses and contrabassoon (an eloquent Luke Whitehead) was exquisitely rendered as though groping forward through Stygian gloom. When Kozhukhin finally arrived he was heroic and powerful, matched by the orchestra. Kozhukin’s fingerwork was dazzling with a frequent layering of sound, and his final cadenza was a virtuoso tour de force. Heras-Casado matched him in an accompaniment that caught most of the emotions in the work from brutal militaristic eruptions to macabre jazz. The only thing that was missing was the undertow of melancholy that some other interpretations have provided. Kozhukhin's encore was Busoni’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude in F minor, that reduced the hall to pin-dropping silence.
Lili Boulanger was a brilliant music student and pupil of Gabriel Fauré, who died at the age of twenty-four and was the first woman to win the Grand Prix de Rome. Her D’un soir triste is one of her last works composed when she knew she was dying, and is an eleven-minute tone poem full of raw emotion and sombre mood. It would be easy to see it as a work of delicate resignation but its dark sadness can also be seen, as Joanna Wyld said in her programme note, as a raging against the dying of the light, specially in her full-blooded brass writing. It may have been a work mourning the dead of the First World War as well as her own life as Boulanger had acted as a nurse caring for wounded soldiers as well as founding an organisation to support musicians fighting in the conflict. It is an emotionally direct and very intimate work that received a fine performance. Heras-Casado seemed to lighten the dense harmonic structure and drew noble playing from the Philharmonia with thrilling brass and doom- laden timpani. After its powerful climax the final dying fall was beautifully observed.
Claude Debussy’s Images is a triptych drawing on folk and dance music from England, Spain and France. Gigues juxtaposes long-breathed melodic lines with pacy rhythmic elements and uses the melody of the Northumbrian folk tune The Keel Row at the beginning and end of the movement to create a withdrawn, windswept atmosphere. Heras-Casado emphasised the bitter-sweet sonorities of the work from oboe d’amore (an excellent Rosemary Staniforth) to ghostly trumpets and caught its spectral quality. The opening strings and horns of Iberia were beguiling and the nocturnal central section of Les perfumes de la nuit had whispy woodwind and sensuous strings giving a sense of seductive languor. The celebratory Le matin d’un jour de fete had panache and vigour with a fizzing conclusion. The final Rondes de printemps had flexibility as well as finesse in timbre and colour with well-pointed detail. It was a performance of refined and energetic playing and a most satisfying end to a memorable concert.