The sensual call of the sea

Robert Cowan on Michael Tilson Thomas's Debussy retrospective
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Classical Debussy Barbican Centre, London

The clouds that greeted "Debussy, Painter of Dreams" at the Barbican on Thursday night were plainly out of season. Michael Tilson Thomas etched a slow, sultry sound-scape, quite different to the linear mobility of Pierre Boulez or the airborne confusion of London's blustery outdoors. These "Nuages" were filled with calme et volupte, whereas finely-drawn cellos and doleful woodwinds signalled a chilling wind-change at half time. Tilson Thomas considers Debussy's Nocturnes as the "herald of a new age", so it was appropriate that he chose them for this first phase in a three-part Debussy retrospective.

"Nuages" was sinuous, and beautifully phrased, the cor anglais crying like a lone gull, answered by the maritime echo of horns. Was it perhaps just a tad too loving, too wilfully shaped? Maybe, and yet the effect was entrancing. "Fetes" came next, a shimmering carnival scene with vivid dynamic contrasts, excited fanfares, chattering woodwinds and a spic 'n' span central processional. This was "classic" Tilson Thomas, a balletic tour de force sizzling with life. "Sirenes" emerged as both remote and animated and was much enhanced by the bleached-white timbre of the Tallis Chamber Choir.

Between Nocturnes and La Mer, Tilson Thomas offered us a varied trio of rarities that included the orchestral version of the First Rhapsody for Clarinet. It's an amazing piece, full of languid sighs and playful trillings, a sort of "fattened faun" and an excellent vehicle for Andrew Marriner, who looked for all the world like Manet's "Fifer". The even more exotic Saxophone Rhapsody had John Harle grade his tone from a velvety mid-range to a wailing treble, weaving around Debussy's oriental-style canvas and projecting loud and clear. We heard the haunting Berceuse heroique, with its sombre violas and bassoons, its desolate reveilles and tender cello writing; and the Trois Ballades de Francois Villon where Peter Mattei - a sonorous baritone whose height virtually levelled with Tilson Thomas on the rostrum - mirrored virtually to perfection Villon's irony, piety and raw humour.

Remembering Tilson Thomas's last Barbican voyage across La Mer had me wondering whether Thursday's outing would witness parallel changes in current, climate and tempo. And in many respects it did. Again, what we heard was sensual and prone to theatrical rubato, towards the end of the work, for example, where optional cornets sound an alarm. Tilson Thomas thinks of La Mer not as a seascape, but as a sort of salted symbol for "sensuality, sexuality, desire and craving". Granted, the heaving home straight suggests Shakespeare's "double-backed beast" on overtime, and yet dry land is rarely in sight. Dawn opened broadly, midday heat blistered to crescendoing brass and percussion, "Waves at play" was skilfully paced but the central episode of "Dialogue between the wind and the sea" was too languid by half, a cinematic re-enactment rather than in situ reportage - "the language of longing", certainly, but a longing from dry land.