This well-polished concert of French music opened with four of Debussy’s piano Préludes redefined for orchestra by Colin Matthews. (He has orchestrated all 24, which are recorded by the Hallé and Mark Elder on the orchestra’s own label.) Matthews has succeeded in his aim to make these pieces completely natural to their new setting – thanks to imaginative and virtuosic scoring. Of the four Préludes chosen here, the ‘Sails’ (or ‘Veils’) were spare and allusive. Then ‘The wind in the plain’ was skirling and jagged. ‘The Engulfed Cathedral’ was noble in Matthews’s creation of bell-sounds to suggest translucent fathoms; and, after the edifice had risen in glory, the use of bass clarinet, trombones and tubas over undulating strings was particularly haunting. Finally, ‘What the West Wind saw’ made for a harsher terrain, abruptly cut-off. The performances of each were excellent, fully sympathetic, the piano not missed, yet Debussy’s music was always recognisable. A win-win situation.
Debussy wasn’t so evident in the 20-minute Fantasy, music from his late-twenties – nice ideas but little else. It was not performed or published during the composer’s lifetime – at a rehearsal Debussy clashed with fellow-composer Vincent d’Indy, who was conducting, and withdrew the score. Nelson Freire didn’t do much to illuminate the music. He was patrician in technique, and displayed much integrity, an admirable quality, but this is a work that needs greater intervention to help it along. Freire’s reading of the score (literally, he had it with him) was no more than face-value, the nocturne-like slow movement (reminding of Rachmaninov) coming off best. The LSO offered a sympathetic accompaniment, not least from the woodwinds, and Carmine Lauri’s violin solo in the finale was magical.
Michael Tilson Thomas also had the score for the Berlioz, only to close it on arrival to the podium; curiously, he opened it two-thirds of the way through the slow movement. The symphony’s opening was languorous and expressive – potent – volatile ‘Passions’ also in evidence. MTT insisted on very emphatic accents in the fast music and many dynamic contrasts. From tender to dangerous, the first movement ran a gamut of moods. The second-movement ‘Waltz’ enjoyed lilt and elegantly-turned corners. (Wisely, MTT didn’t require the ad lib
cornet solo; it gets in the way!) The ‘Country Scene’ slow movement, at a very broad tempo, enjoyed poetic and beguiling playing – not least from cor anglais and its ‘distant beloved’, the behind-stage oboe (perspectives ideally realised). There were some spellbinding moments here – most memorably a few bars of pppp
(or quieter) from clarinettist Chris Richards that really that had the hairs standing to attention – all seamlessly rising to anguished outbursts (and thunder-creating timpani) through Tilson Thomas’s carefully charted approach.
‘March to the Scaffold’ was convincingly too fast (the ‘unusual’ repeat observed), LSO brass swaggering (trombones’ rasps lightly touched in), MTT finding oft-overlooked woodwind details. The eerie strings that herald the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ emerged out of the glowering final chord of the preceding movement (an MTT trademark, one of those genius moments). If the bells were too tubular and not doom-laden enough, this was a thrilling ride – as musically articulate as it was pictorially suggestive – given with meaning rather than glib emptiness; here virtuosity served Berlioz’s vision rather than the performers’ brilliance.