This was an all-French programme by Oxford Philharmonic at the Sheldonian, the piano soloist Cedric Tiberghien also originally hailing from NE France. The Camille Saint-Saens piano concerto selected was the 5th, the Egyptian, an interesting choice. The 2nd Piano Concerto is the most often heard today of his five, with the 4th also in the repertoire, while the other three are relative rarities. I'm very fond of each of the five piano concertos, and it was a treat to hear the Egyptian, composed mostly on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, and enjoy the thumping reception given to it and its interpreters at the end.
The concerto began with a few plucked notes from the cellos before the quiet entry of the piano. This was the first engagement in Oxford for Karina Canellakis from New York City, a protegee of Simon Rattle. She and the orchestra had put in around six concentrated hours of rehearsal, and she and Mr Tiberghien communicated closely throughout by looks and nods. To my ear the balance of strings and soloist was at times not quite right in this first movement, the former tending slightly to overshadow the clean sound lines of the piano as it poured out runs up and down the keyboard in swirling patterns of elaboration.
The horns began the 2nd movement with a blaring flourish, and then Saint Saens's liking for simple melody is expressed in a Nile boating song that he is said to have heard as he relaxed in a river felucca, and this was intercut with sotto voce injections from the horns. Mr Tiberghien settled to an exotic passage of impressionistic playing. He has a distinctive playing style, hunching well forward over the keys, ear cocked as if straining to make out the resonance of the soundboard. The 'molto allegro' is a heaven-sent opportunity for keyboard virtuosity and Mr Tiberghien seized it in both hands, switching from quasi-ragtime rhythms to a driving second theme that rushes all over the piano and concludes in a pulsating flourish. The audience's rapture led naturally to an encore, La Puerta del Vino [the gateway to wine], one of Debussy's 24 Preludes.
After the interval it was all Debussy, firstly in the guise of Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, short but influential in the development of atonal music. The composer offers no end of opportunities for an orchestra's wind section and also the harp, and particularly for the flute whose celebrated opening passage recurs seven times later on. Ms Canellakis with fluent, subtle gesture teased out the theme of how a faun - and man - marries the sexual desire and animal instinct of the body with the rational thought of the mind. The Philharmonic is fortunate to have as its principal flautist the outstanding Tony Robb. With perfect breathing control he conjured up the image of the faun lying exhausted in the midday heat, imagining future conquests of nymphs while blowing through a reed pipe. His tone was clear but soft, and plaintive without sentimentality. Playing of this quality is not arrived at casually; Mr Robb told me he'd had this piece in mind for six weeks beforehand, practising constantly in different heating conditions in his search for excellence.
Debussy's La Mer, perhaps the most important musical work of French Impressionism, concluded the concert. It was completed in 1905 at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, then in its Edwardian heyday. The composer corrected the proofs there between 24 July and 30 August 1905 in Suite 200, now known as the Debussy Suite. The hotel lies on the seafront and from his suite Debussy would at night have looked directly out to the winking light of the Royal Sovereign lightship, moored 11 miles off the coast.
I admired the graceful naturalness of Ms Canellakis baton work here, and the now 80-strong orchestra's playing had a fine sheen and lightness. The dancing melody for sub-divided cellos in the 1st movement surged like a sudden swell; there was both foam and spray on this sea. At the end, tension built by means of repeated squalls in which muted trumpets were heard repeatedly, building to a thrilling climax.