Prom 72: The Philadelphia Orchestra visits the Proms

13/09/2011

 Prom 72. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Ravel: Janine Jansen (violin); Philadelphia Orchestra; Charles Dutoit (conductor). Royal Albert Hall 08/09/2011 (KC)

Sibelius: Finlandia Op. 26
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Op. 35
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances Op 45
Ravel: La Valse

As part of its 2011 European Festivals Tour, undertaken with support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and US Airways, the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the USA’s finest orchestras, arrived at the Proms.

Sibelius’ Finlandia was written as a warning to the Russian government to desist from trying to suppress Finnish nationalism. Finlandia should frighten its hearers. If they are Finnish, it should arouse grim joy at the thrill of hearing their people stand proud while giving voice to their independence of spirit. The Philadelphia came close, but its brass was a little too civilized to give full voice to the rough, dangerous, rasping threat that I heard the Philharmonia voice under Lief Segerstam in 2003.

Played here with elegance, the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brought to mind the composer’s admiration for Mozart. Soon, however, the orchestra swung into a more familiar tone.  The players made the music dance in vigorous fashion – splendidly-dressed but not quite reaching an appropriate swagger and bravura.  The occasional mid-movement pauses released sighs of anguish, unexpressed hitherto, through good manners.  Janine Jansen didn’t sound as though her spirit were fully involved in the extrovert sections; she managed the quiet sorrow with more heart. I enjoyed her first movement cadenza – and, by the by, delighted at the flute’s receiving of the relay baton from the violin at its close, so slick, so seamless. In the Canzonetta, Janine Jansen’s dignified, heartfelt anguish revealed home ground, I sensed. However, a joyful surprise was to come. As we eased smoothly into the vigorous, robust allegro vivacissimo, it became splendidly evident that we were also going to become more Russian. This was a hectic, rumbustuous dance, Cossack-tinged. It was energetic and very fast indeed, taken without a breath, with invincible, unceasing spirit. It was loud and raucous; metaphorically, feet stamped and clothes swirled. This was a high-spot of the evening. It declaimed the excellence of the Philadelphia and Janine Jansen. (Following a practice I deplore, an encore followed – the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita in D minor BVW 1004. Janine Jansen had already displayed her brilliance as a violinist; I needed no confirmation of that. Furthermore, I had wanted to go out to the interval with my blood tingling from ‘Russian’ exhilaration rather than cooled through the intense serenity of Bach.)

Unfortunately, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances did not reach these heights. It was treated somewhat in the manner of a concerto for orchestra: sonic spotlights shone on instruments performing their ‘turns’, many of them brilliant and authoritative. Many of the intervening sections were shapeless and turgid. Little of the performance suggested the dance. (I have just listened – to check – to Kondrashin and the Moscow PO. I was riveted.)

Then came the second high-spot of the evening – a wonderful performance of Ravel’s La Valse. It’s not one of the easiest pieces to play – Ravel is an exacting, brilliant, capricious, mercurial master, requiring delicacy with strands of steel to make his point. He requires impressionism of immaculate clarity and precision from a huge body of the finest players. All this, Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra managed with ringing, enchanting, unspoiled perfection – memorably.

They, too, returned with an encore: the Hungarian March from La Damnation de Faust, using Berlioz’ music as a show piece of orchestral panache. As such, it shone brilliantly.

Ken Carter

 

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