Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (15) – The ‘Philadelphia Sound’ is as good as ever

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Ravel, Rachmaninov : Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Usher Hall, 30.8.2011. (SRT)

Stravinsky: Le chant du Rossignol
Ma mere l’oye, La valse
Symphonic Dances

When the Philadelphia Orchestra come to town you sit up and take notice, and I’ve seldom realised just how much notice there is to take of the individual details hidden in the midst of all the works played tonight. The Philadelphia sound, still distinctive, gleams with brightness that you seldom hear elsewhere, giving the music a clean quality as if it has been freshly dusted down. This exposes the inner workings of each piece to a thrilling degree so that, even in familiar works like La Valse, you go away wondering how you had never picked up on such and such a detail before. This suited the oriental world of Stravinsky’s Nightingale particularly well, with an exotic shimmer to the forefront of both the score and the way it was played. There was a specially evocative quality to the music surrounding the emperor’s funeral cortège and the conclusion of the piece, but throughout it was the spotlit brilliance of the inner voices that struck me afresh.

There’s a special sheen on the Philadelphia violins, and the most remarkable thing about their playing of Ravel’s Mother Goose suite was the effect they produced when evoking a misty half-light, almost rose-tinted, in Ravel’s fairytale pictures. The gleam was still there, only veiled and mysterious, producing a thrilling effect at the end of The Magic Garden, and there was a beautifully played clarinet solo in the Beauty and the Beast movement.

Charles Dutoit’s carefully controlled direction was key to the successful unfolding of these great scores, but in the second half I couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt that Dutoit’s conducting was a little too careful, failing to let fly when required. The Symphonic Dances, for example, were rather too polite, especially in the opening which lacked any sense of Russian energy. Equally, La Valse shimmered delightfully with all the gloss of the fin-de-siècle, but there was no feeling of encroaching entropy, of hurtling into the abyss, which is so important in this music. Only in the encore, Berlioz’s Hungarian March, did that come, and the orchestra, let off the leash, sounded better than ever.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.

Simon Thompson