Alain Altinoglu Holds Daphnis et Chloé on Too Tight a Leash

16/07/2018

Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 2 – Fauré, Mozart and Ravel: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), BBC Symphony Chorus, City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Alain Altinoglu (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.7.2018. (AS)

FauréPavane Op.50
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat K595
RavelDaphnis et Chloé

Concert performances of the complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet in London were once very rare. Two performances stand out in the writer’s memory, however. The first was in May 1959, when Pierre Monteux, who had conducted the premiere of the work in 1912, directed a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall at the time of his renowned Decca studio recording. The second was in 1970, when Pierre Boulez conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a first-ever Prom performance that deeply impressed even those who were not generally admirers of this conductor’s work.

Those two formidable points of reference have inevitably been present in all subsequent hearings of this work. They were certainly challenged in a superb RPO performance under the now disgraced Charles Dutoit, who no doubt would have conducted this one had it not been for his recent dismissal as the orchestra’s chief conductor. The last Prom performance in 2014 under Josef Pons was disappointingly lack-lustre, and Prom debutant Alain Altinoglu’s reading was also disappointing, but for different reasons.

The large chorus of two combined groups certainly made a magnificently sonorous contribution, and the RPO’s playing left little to be desired, especially from a superb group of wind players. Tempi were in the main well judged, so what was the problem? Sir Adrian Boult was a noted interpreter of the work and the flautist Gareth Morris once described Boult as viewing the music as if from above. This apparently curious description gives a clue to its interpretative needs. It is in a sense remote music, even in such vigorous passages as the war dance, and conductors need to stand back to guide it, to let its intrinsic sensuality, drama and seductive instrumentation flourish without over-intervention.

Altinoglu was reluctant to let the music speak for itself. He kept it on a short lead, always intervening to point this or that detail, and as a result the score’s magic was for the most part lost. It all sounded rather prosaic and contrived, and the emotional temperature didn’t ever rise very much, even in the concluding General Dance’s driving quintuple rhythms.

Fauré’s Pavane has its own sensuality, gently expressed as always by this composer. It makes infinitely more impression when it is played in the version with chorus rather than by orchestra alone, and here Altinoglu did let the music speak for itself, to charming effect.

There was something of an old-fashioned feel about the presentation of the concerto. For one thing the orchestra was a of slightly larger size than is normally afforded to modern Mozart performances and it was none the worse for that. Tempi throughout the work were fairly easy-going, and most strikingly Piemontesi opted for a gentle, quite delicate approach to the work. His playing was certainly most beautiful throughout, and his approach to the central Larghetto, particularly, was very deeply felt, or so it seemed. The concluding Allegro was perhaps even too fragile in execution, and the main theme of this rondo finale, very simple and almost childlike as it is, seemed to become more and more banal as it returned time and time again.

As an encore Piemontesi played Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op.117 No.1, in which he emphasised the quiet, reflective nature of this piece.

Alan Sanders

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