A True French Sound in Geneva

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Debussy, Chopin, Stravinsky, Ravel: Nelson Freire (piano), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Victoria Hall, Geneva, 5.2.2015  (AL)

Claude Debussy: Ibéria
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
Igor Stravinsky: Le chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale)
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2


Charles Dutoit’s association with the Swiss Romande Orchestra is a long and fruitful one that dates from the time of legendary founder Ernest Ansermet, with whom Dutoit worked. He regularly conducts the OSR, and the association just clicks: musicians give their best to him.

Like Ansermet, Dutoit has a keen ear for the genuine French sound  ̶  and may I categorize Stravinsky as the most French of all Russian composers. Too often, French works are played with sonic flamboyance: American orchestras tend to use the pieces to demonstrate their strong brass sections, and German ensembles put more emphasis on the strings. But Debussy, Ravel or, on this evening, Stravinsky lean towards woodwinds. Melodies and musical lines are more often to be found in their sections, and a true French sound must favor them.

This is what Dutoit achieves with the OSR, and there were many positive contributions from the winds. Michael Westphal on the clarinet had some wonderful solos in Ibéria. Geneva is known for its school of flute which has nurtured many outstanding players: Sarah Rumer had a roundness and fullness of sound in the difficult solo in the Stravinsky, and her colleague Loïc Schneider displayed finesse and virtuosity in the Ravel.

The music benefited from Dutoit’s care for characterization. In spite of Geneva’s cold winter, one could feel the warmth of the Spanish summer in Ibéria. The musicians were all together and displayed great care for balance in the tricky and demanding Song of the Nightingale. This is a really challenging piece which had definitely been the object of many rehearsals. While Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is one of the signature pieces of Dutoit and the OSR, there were a few passages which were a little less polished. The conductor had to visibly interfere to achieve a balance, but on the whole these were minor points in a reading full of atmosphere.

Many in the audience, which included Martha Argerich, rejoiced in the first half to hear a Geneva favorite, Nelson Freire. Dutoit did not manage to convince us that Chopin was in his element writing for orchestra, but this was not really a problem. Tempis in the Maestoso were somewhat brisk as if Freire wanted to remind us of the youthfulness of this early Chopin piece. While the Brazilian pianist was not totally at ease with the many embellishments and grace notes of the solo part, his care for the melodic line of the Larghetto, the naturalness of his phrasing and his velvety tone were special and the mark of true artistry. He was rightly so acknowledged by the audience, and he rewarded us with Chopin’s celebrated Mazurka Op. 50, No. 3.

Charles Dutoit is taking the OSR on a tour of the US. They will be joined by Nikolaï Lugansky in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but overall this will be a unique opportunity for many to rediscover the true French orchestral sound.

 Antoine Lévy-Leboyer


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