The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Good Form under Charles Dutoit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, R. Strauss:  Julia Fischer (violin); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit. Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.3.2012 (CC)

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61
R. Strauss
: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

The renaissance of the Royal Philharmonic continues. This was an enjoyable concert which, despite evident weaknesses, bodes well for the orchestra and its continuing collaboration with its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor since 2009, Charles Dutoit. They are regularly attracting first rank soloists, too. German violinist Julia Fischer has issued a string of successful recordings, some in collaboration with Yakov Kreizberg, who died so tragically young.

The orchestral exposition of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was brisk and fresh (silences perfectly judged by Dutoit). Cellos were agile and light; Fischer entered with slow-spread octaves – her lean delivery of the passages on the G string was entirely in keeping with the overall conception. There was much to admire from Fischer, particularly a lovely, clean high register. And yet the sum total seemed to be a disconnect between performers and the composer. Nowhere was there true involvement with the music. The high point of the first movement was the cadenza, its contrapuntal elements reminding us of Fischer’s excellence in Bach (she has recorded both the Concertos and the solo Sonatas and Partitas). The slow movement (after a mass entry of late-comers) began with some magical string playing from the RPO, matched by lovely purity of tone from Fischer. Her long line against pizzicato strings was particularly memorable. If Fischer’s infectious smile during the finale’s first tutti was a source of real delight, so was her playing (a special mention also for the superbly characterful solo bassoon, Jaroslaw Augustyniak). There was an encore – not Bach, surprisingly, but Paganini; the Caprice No. 13 (beautifully delivered, with ‘laughing’ staccato).

Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is a massive challenge for any orchestra. The RPO rose to it well, although the lyrical passages were identifiably more successful than the more swaggering, self-aggrandising ones. Machismo was on the toned-down side, minimizing the necessary contrasts in the work between egotistic bluster, tender love and the final farewell. The strings in general (and high strings in particular) lacked heft, although the integrity of individual lines and the illumination of often-ignored counterpoint spoke of enhanced rehearsal time. Alas, slower sections did not have the requisite sense of luxuriance, and the Love Music never quite settled. Perhaps most impressive was the woodwind, not only in their solo contributions but also as Beckmessers all in their depiction of the critics.

The solo violin (leader Duncan Riddell) was an eloquent “other” protagonist, offering a foil to the swagger of the depictions of the composer himself. Technically secure and often sweet-toned, he impressed. To Dutoit’s credit, the music never sagged. The brass excelled, with noteworthy horn solos (particularly in the work’s final section, where principal horn Laurence Davies’ lyric outpourings outshone those of the leader).

A pity the major fault here was the lack of depth to the string sound, something so vital to this piece.

Colin Clarke