The concert – directed, as always, by the evergreen Geoff Keating – began with Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No 1. It was a demanding start, with a wide spectrum of tone and mood; and while there were some marvellously crisp and springy sounds in the louder, rhythmic sections, the orchestra took a little while to warm up in the slower, more exposed episodes. At all times, however, we were conscious of Bizet’s lucidity and craftsmanship – qualities which Nietzsche contrasted favourably with the dense ruminations of Wagner, once he had freed himself from the spell cast by the Klingsor of Bayreuth.
Good French music – like lots of good French things, from motor cars to cooking – tends towards the subtle, original and quirky. In Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d’été, written in the early summer of Romanticism, all these qualities are on parade. The young mezzo-soprano Freya Jacklin gave us some exquisite singing, adjusting her timbres accurately to the alternating moods of love and loss. Her finely-wrought lines were underpinned by the increasingly confident orchestra: they rose heroically to the challenges of Berlioz’s novel scoring, which singles out small groups of instrumentalists to display their skills. Luminous, ravishing and spine-tinglingly evocative, these songs could surely not be anything but French.
And so to Franck’s Symphony in D minor. It took nerve to write a symphony in the late 19th century. You lived under the shadow of so many towering precursors, and most of your colleagues were preoccupied with operas and new, exciting cyclical forms incorporating ‘thematic metamorphosis’. It was even trickier if your personal musical material, sinuously chromatic and rhythmically on the stolid side, was a far cry from the motivic power packs used by the classical masters. But Franck had a go, and the result, a symphonic poem disguised as a symphony, is deservedly popular, since its expressiveness is heartfelt, candid and – yes! – frank. Too direct to be wholly French, perhaps; but the composer was wrestling with some powerful Germanic influences.
By this point in the programme, the orchestra was on a roll: purposeful solos were offset by twinkle-toed pizzicati and thunderous tuttis, bulked out by magnificently steroidal brass. Some of the evening’s most exciting playing came in Franck’s surging climaxes and lurid modulations, erupting like neon flares into the hall. Although its applause made up in volume for a lack of numbers, the audience was smaller than this concert deserved: tempestuous weather kept away all but the hardiest and most devoted souls. But absent friends missed a treat –undoubtedly, un plat à savourer!