From celebrating the personality of a single musician to the combined power of more than 80 – the weekend of Abu Dhabi Festival performances kicked off on Thursday with a solo showcase of pianist Lang Lang’s prowess, and continued a day later with the considerable might of the Orchestre de Paris.
Performing on the first of two nights at Emirates Palace – the ensemble returns this evening – the orchestra’s programme honoured French composers, celebrating France’s selection as the festival’s Country of Honour this year.
The centrepiece was a sublime reading of Saint-Saëns’s third and final symphony. Something of a nationalistic mascot, it is regularly performed by the orchestra – and it showed, with the music flowing between inward-gazing solemnity and pompous majesty with the greatest of nuance.
Better known as The Organ Symphony, Saint-Saëns composed this novel work in 1886, specifically to suit the powerful organ installed at London’s St James’s Hall. However, by the day of the premiere, the organ had been replaced by a much smaller instrument – and the pipes barely made an impression.
In hindsight, it is perhaps fortunate Saint-Saëns did not make more use of the organ in his masterpiece – it appears sparingly in only two of the piece’s four sections (which despite following a symphony form, are divided into just two movements). After the majestic Mendelssohnian nostalgia of the first, the organ emerges in the second section to drone slow, haunting chords – the goal is power and presence, not dexterity.
Returning to the opening theme in the final section, the organ again emerges suddenly with an almighty, heaven-staring chord, before pronouncing the melody’s slow, simple inclusivity in almighty childlike blocks. Coming all the way to Abu Dhabi seemed a long way for star soloist Thierry Escaich to fly to play so few notes – but the effect was overpowering.
If Saint-Saëns's work was defined by the sparing use of the soloist, a reading of Lalo's Cello Concerto marked a conceptual contrast. Rather than working in dialogue with its fellow strings, Xavier Phillips's antique cello was always front and centre.
More pleasing was a triumphant opening performance of Berlioz's Le Corsaire overture. An influential figure in the birth of programme music – compositions that invite listeners to picture a specific place, physical state or story – it was not difficult to imagine the breaking waves of the Mediterranean Sea that inspired the work's overflowing finale.
Throughout, renowned conductor Paavo Järvi presided with flowing elegance and absolute clarity.
Even without the sound, watching him sway with the lurching fluidity of a puppet – each nuance producing a symbiotic countermovement in the mass of musicians below – would be fascinating to behold.
After six years as musical director – including the historic launch of the orchestra’s new home, Philharmonie de Paris – the Estonian conductor stands down this summer. One wonders how these shoes might be filled next.
• The Orchestre de Paris perform a programme including Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’s Symphony No 2 at Emirates Palace Sunday, April 17 at 8pm. Tickets, from Dh125, at www.abudhabifestival.ae