Prom 43. Dutoit’s Delius and Saint-Saëns Outshine his Tchaikovksy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 43: Delius, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky. Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.8.12 (GD)

Delius:  Paris The Song of a Great City
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op.22
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op.64

From the opening notes of Delius’s Paris, in sustained lower strings and woodwinds meant to conjure up a veiled, shadowy evocation of the Seine, this promised to be a memorable concert. And indeed, the whole performance of Delius’s first major orchestral work was as idiomatially played and conducted as would seem possible. Of especial excellence were the long and haunting woodwind solos, all balanced so well with the rest of the orchestra. I suppose one could conjecture that Beecham’s one time orchestra (the first London performance given by Beecham in 1908) would have a special feeling for this work and the music of Delius in general, But I doubt whether there are many players in the orchestra now who played under Beecham. And I am not really sure of how much of Beecham’s musical influence has endured? The performance Beecham recorded with the RPO in 1954 is in many ways more structurally coherent than tonight’s rendition was, but, if anything, Dutoit’s performance was more tonally sumptious and ravishing. Under Dutoit it almost sounded like the Ravel of Daphnis and Chloe. In fact , Delius’s main influence here was the music of Richard Strauss, but Dutoit certainly added a French tone to the work. Although taken in its own terms as a kind of early symphonic poem there is, apart from the title, nothing especially ‘Parisian’ here.

Saint-Saëns played the piano part in the first performanceof the G minor Piano Concerto in 1868, with his friend Anton Rubinstein conducting., but it wasn’t well received the by the critics. The main criticism was that it was too abruptly contrasted in terms of tone and mood. As one eminent Parisian critic said; ‘it starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach’. But although Saint-Saëns’ works in general need to be played more often, today we welcome such shifts of mood and contrast, especially in this this most frequently performed of his piano concertos. Overall, from the Bachian solo opening to the virtuosic swirls and tonal adventues of the Presto finale, Grosvenor delivered a fine rendition with generally fine accompaniment and rapport from Dutoit and the orchestra, although in the second movement Allegro Scherzando, with its elegant, witty rhythms and finely integrated melodies, I did notice a slight lack, from soloist and orchestra, in terms of mercurial play and rhythmic sharpness. I later played the recording Dutoit made with French pianist Pascal Rogé., and right away I heard a greater rhythmic finesse and contrast in the latter’s playing. Also Dutoit, with the RPO of the mid nineties, seemed more attuned to the wit and lightness of the movement, and indeed the whole work. Grosvenor played perfectly well, but at times I had the feeling of little contrast; it was as though everything was on the same tonal level. Surely the tarantella finale needs more sparkle, panache and tonal rhythmic contrast than we heard tonight. I have already mentioned the excellence of Rogé’s playing. One can also hear the wonderfully idiomatic classic recordings of all the piano concertos from Jeanne-Marie Darre recorded in Paris in the mid-fifties.

As an encore Grosvenor played a charming rendition of the piano version of the ‘Swan’ from Saint Saëns’ ever popular Carnival of the Animals’

Dutoit made an admirable recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in 1988 with the splendid Montreal Symphony Orchestra, of which he was then the chief conductor. He had previously distinguished himself as a fine ballet conductor and in that recording this experience of ballet was wonderfully evident. Of course this is a symphony, but at the time Tchaikovsky composed it he had fully mastered an admirable blend of balletic lilt and movement within a fully worked out symphonic structure. In that earlier recording Dutoit followed the composer’s opening tempo marked ‘Andante’, with a brooding tone with a modulated B minor and a distinct forward pulse. This was in such contrast to what we heard tonight! Dutoit opened with a ponderously slow andante, so slow that I thought the music was on the verge of coming to a full stop! Whereas Dutoit previously gauged the lead up to the first dramatic tutti of the allegro with a consumate sense of timing, tonight most of this was lost. In Montreal this first tutti had a fresh sounding rhythmic sharpness and bounce (I can think of no other word), whereas tonight, in contrast, we heard some rather thick textured loud playing, with little rhythmic sharpness or bounce. To make things worse Dutoit fell into the bad habit of misreading the composer’s marking for the lyrical second subject. This develops around the basic key of D major and is marked ‘molto piu tranquillo’. Dutoit, like many of the more mannered performances, takes this as an indication to make a huge ritardando, but in fact Tchaikovsky makes it pefectly clear that he wants a sustained tempo of 92. And so the movement continued in this rather heavy ponderous manner, as though Dutoit wanted to inflect the symphony with a kind of teutonic gravitas. – all very far from Tchaikovsky’s very clear intentions.

The second movement, again marked ‘Andante’, again hovering around B minor with a magical shift to D major indicating a sense of movement and forward flow, sounded dull tonight again with a dragging tempo full of turgid textures and a wobbly first horn. Of course Dutoit had to speed up for the powerful ‘moderato con anima’ central climax, which sounded arbitary and brash and, as with the tutti passages in the previous movement, too loud, with crashing timpani and strident brass.

There was some very accomplished playing (especially from the bassoon) in the graceful ‘valse’ movement. And in the wonderfully elegant, balletic trio, Dutoit seemed to be back on form. But even here and compared the earlier Montreal performance, there was a lack of balletic lilt and textural finesse.

The last movement was mostly very rousing, but again, as in some of the older mannered readings ( I won’t mention names) one had the impression that this music was being treated more as a crowd pleaser. Of course there is nothing wrong in pleasing the crowd or, as here, the audience. But it is a remarkable fact that when this music is conducted with the proper symphonic rigour it deserves, the audience is more pleased. I remember hearing a superb performance of this symphony by the LSO under the impeccable baton of Igor Markevitch which elicited a standing ovation from a usually quite sober Festival Hall audience. The problem with this finale tonight was that it lacked an assured symphonic contour. Indeed, at times Dutoit made it sound more like an orchestral show-piece. But even a casual glance at the score should be enough to indicate that this movement is a most carefully worked out symphonic statement. As in the classical symphonic tradition it wonderfully brings all the previous themes together in a splendid D major tone of triumph. To take one example: the way in which Tchaikovsky modulates between D major and F sharp minor in the lead up to the coda, carefully deferring the lead in to the dominant (moderato assai e molto maestoso) for the triumphal march in the major, which forms the coda’s peroration and summing up of the famous ‘fate’ motif and other previous themes. Although Dutoit made all this sound very exciting there was an ultimate sense of superficiality with the coda’s repeated march-like chords, fully resounding in D major, sounding bashed out with no real sense of sustained rhythmic unity. But the Prom audience loved it breaking into wild applause.

Dutoit is a conductor I usually admire, with a wide ranging repertoire, and an elegant but rigorous conducting style, in the best French tradition. The two opening works, especially the Delius piece, were very much what one would expect from Dutoit, well thought out with exemplary orchestral balance and an ear for diverse orchestral textures and colour. I can only speculate that the disappointing Tchaikovsky was just one of those performances which failed emerge as it should have done. Even the greatest conductors occasionally miss the mark in music where interpretative inspiration and excellence are expected.

Geoff Diggines.