This concert marked both an end and a beginning. It was the final event in the 50th anniversary season of the City of London Festival and at the same time inaugurated the first Livery Concert, attended by the Lord Mayor of London and marking the support that the City of London’s historic livery companies give to the arts.
Something special was needed for the occasion. In 2009, Renée Fleming gave the premiere of the final, completed version of Le temps l’horloge, which French composer Henri Dutilleux wrote for her, and the highlight of this concert was the work’s first, belated performance in the UK, with Fleming to introduce it.
Dutilleux, now 96, has lost nothing of his exceptional ear for sound and the four songs of this cycle combine his inimitable, very French sound-world with an appreciation for the rapturous lyricism of Fleming’s voice. The poems conjure strange images – a bronze mask rising high over a desert is perhaps the most striking – and Dutilleux has responded with evocative settings. Against the backdrop of his enigmatic orchestration, adorned by an accordion and the old-world tinkling of a harpsichord, Fleming made the poems come alive with detail, hinting at great truths just out of reach. For all its beauty, the work does not give up its secrets easily.
The conductor, Valery Gergiev, resisted the temptation to play up Dutilleux’s glittering orchestra in favour of allowing Fleming almost always to be heard easily. He did the same in Ravel’s Shéhérazade, so she had the luxury of being able to play with words, where most singers are focused on getting their voices over the accompaniment. This was a rather slow, self-indulgent performance (Ravel preferred performers who get a move on) but Fleming’s seductive beauty of sound is difficult to resist in these songs of yearning and temptation.
On either side Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra performed not fillers, but major works. Debussy’s La Mer, recorded by them last year, was intermittently sluggish, like the Ravel. Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in its 1911 version, is almost too lavish a piece to work in the Barbican’s congested acoustic, and some of it felt impossibly over-busy, but there was a lot of distinguished solo playing, and plenty of corporate virtuosity.