PROM 44, 15h August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London
Stravinsky, Penderecki, Debussy, Ravel, Arto Noras, cello, Leonard Elschenbroich, cello, Daniel Muller-Schott, cello, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor.
Stravinski: Fireworks (1908, revised 1909)
Krzysztof Penderecki: Concerto Grosso (2000-2001)
Debussy: La Mer (1903-5)
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12) Suite no. 2.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays but one Prom every year, and this time it was their artistic director and principal conductor who led the proceedings. Charles Dutoit’s association with the orchestra goes back some fifty years. He is much loved by the players and one could expect extra special results; as you will see, we were not disappointed.
Stravinsky’s early work was much influenced by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov and in 1908, when the younger composer finished the first score of “Fireworks” he sent it to his master for approval. However, it was returned unopened because Rimsky-Korsakov had died. I am sure he would have approved of it, with its dazzling orchestration and abundant wit, and nowadays its interest is in its foretastes of “The Firebird,” “ Petrouchka,” and “Le Chant du Rossignol” among other significant early works. If the performance tonight felt a little hesitant at first it soon gathered momentum during its brief four minutes, and by the end we had glimpses of the virtuosity this orchestra is certainly capable of.
There was now an irritatingly long break in the programme while the violins trooped off and the stage was rearranged to accommodate the three solo cellists featured in the next work.
“Mostly elegiac” was an overheard comment from a member of the audience talking about Penderecki’s “Concerto Grosso.” It’s a long time since the composer was dubbed an enfant terrible of the avant garde with his “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” Penderecki’s style has undergone changes, and frequently embraces tonality; influences as diverse as Bruckner, Shostakovich, Brahms and Liszt have been absorbed, and the result is his own fusion of 19th and 20th Century idioms.
The Concerto Grosso sets the three cellos against a “normal” symphony orchestra, but the composer wisely uses the orchestra, for the most part, rather sparingly. Each of the three soloists has his own opportunities to rise above the orchestral textures, the individual lines being often highly expressive. At the outset, each cellist plays his own solo, and it is only after this that all three play together. A similar process is repeated towards the end. The piece subdivides into six sections played without a break, and it’s not all slow, even if the “mostly elegiac” impression is what one is left with. There are energetic dance-like sections, but there is an inevitability about the way their energy dissipates into thoughtful lyricism once more. Dutoit has championed this work, performing it far and wide, and clearly has the measure of it. Likewise the soloists were all terrific, all three expressing the music with intense passion and commitment. The sounds are frequently beautiful, but I did feel there could have been a greater variety of texture overall. Nevertheless it seemed a faultless performance.
As chance would have it, I was in Eastbourne a couple of days ago where, ensconced with his pregnant mistress (soon to become his wife) in the Grand Hotel, Debussy completed “La Mer.” Plenty of sea images were scudding through my mind, therefore, as the RPO feasted on this iconic impressionist masterpiece. Dutoit is never more at home than in this French music; his recordings with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal quickly became favourites in the 90’s, and are still reckoned to be among the best. Tonight he led the RPO through a performance in which every nuance was savoured, but never at the expense of the narrative flow. Dutoit is particularly alert to the dramatic qualities of the score, with constantly flexible tempi and gorgeously detailed colours. We heard the most superb pianissimos from the strings, sublimely sensitive solos from the woodwind, and bursts of ferocity and majesty when needed from the brass and percussion. I loved the way momentum was built up in the second movement, where one could not help seeing and hearing the waves pounding along and the wind in your face. And, in the third movement, things were as stormy as you could possibly want. There may be other, more measured and refined ways of doing “La Mer” but I defy anyone to bring off a more vivid and altogether salty performance; for me it was almost like hearing the piece for the first time, and I’ll not forget the experience in a hurry.
I can’t help feeling a trifle short-changed when Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is performed without the choir. Also, I love much of music in part one of the ballet too, but had to be content with the 2nd Suite tonight, which Ravel himself prepared. Fortunately, Dutoit’s reading had all the same qualities he had brought to “La Mer.” The opening Daybreak scene was beautifully atmospheric with Dutoit emphasising the bird calls perhaps a little more strongly than usual. The long melodies were perfectly judged in the strings, and the whole section had just enough momentum to avoid sentimentality. Glorious!
Moving on, I delighted in John Anderson’s oboe solos, and then it was the turn of Emer McDonough to enchant us with her ravishing flute solo. The final Danse General was taken at a fast lick, but it didn’t feel rushed until, perhaps, the very end. It was superbly exciting, with tremendous rhythmic verve, and all in all, this was a terrific performance, and a fitting end to an unforgettable concert. The members of the RPO had played their socks off; it goes without saying that each department is of virtuoso standard, but what impresses most of all is the way in which the various sections work together to produce wonderfully blended sounds. On this showing, and with this conductor, it must be the match of any orchestra in the world.