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Dutoit and Berlioz (II) Berlioz, Beethoven, Yefim Bronfman (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor); RFH: 28 October, 2004 (AR)

Again Charles Dutoit proved himself to be an exemplary conductor of Hector Berlioz, opening his second Philharmonia Orchestra concert with a crisp and sparkling performance of that composer’s Overture, Béatrice and Bénédict. Dutoit’s hallmarks are control of architecture and dynamics coupled with rhythmic tautness and poetic grace. One could not simply imagine this music being better conducted and played, with the Philharmonia being in perfect form and ranking with any of the world’s leading orchestras.

Yefim Bronfman gave a macho account of Beethoven’s Fourth piano concerto. His bold, larger than life performance reeked of testosterone. It was masculine and muscular – he let the piano and the audience know who was boss. His dark and solid sounding tone had the right weight for the Allegro moderato. Yet Bronfman also has a light fleeting technique as he runs his fingers up and down the keyboard with dazzling ease and confidence. The cadenza had a brooding and a stark directness with Bronfman digging deep into Beethoven’s extreme and excessive temperament.

The Philharmonia strings in the Andante con moto opened this brief interlude with the appropriate gruffness and weight contrasting beautifully with the pianist’s elegant lightness of touch. Bronfman took real risks here, fragmenting the notes to make the music sound alienated and detached as if lost in thought, making the notes drift as if they had a will and a life of their own.

Here there was an extraordinary tension between soloist and orchestra with Dutoit and Bronfman both keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings. The Rondo was both tough and agile, with the pianist’s tone taking on a sparkling light touch accompanied by the Philharmonia which had assumed the sound of a veteran German orchestra, producing all the appropriate gravitas and weight


Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was, needless to say, a paradigm performance, perfectly paced; a model of perfection from beginning to end. Dutoit is a delight to watch: every poetic gesture is for the musicians and the music and not for the ego.


Dreams had a sensation of deep slumbers with particularly sweetly turbulent strings - very often these opening passages can sound dragged out, but here there was great fluidity under Dutoit’s pulsating pace. In Passions the throbbing ‘cellos and double basses produced a rich dark resonance accompanied by Andrew Smith’s customary assertive timpani. Dutoit’s rhythms were buoyant and fervid giving, the music a sense of lustfulness. Unlike so many conductors today, Dutoit gave as much attention to the ‘cellos and double basses here (and throughout the performance) giving the music deeper expression and wider dynamics.


In A Ball, Dutoit’s balletic conducting style strikingly resembled the late Celibidache: here the music was elegant, graceful and buoyant but tinged with impending tragedy – a danse macabre in a haunted ballroom. The woodwinds and harps were superbly focused and played, and the fleeting beat tempted one to get up and dance. The Scene in the Country was extraordinarily impassioned and moving and again the Philharmonia strings produced rich golden sounds. Susan Böhling’s eerie and mesmerising cor anglais solos were complemented by the insinuation of distant murmurings from the three timpanists who produced a shuddering sensation of an approaching threat: I have never heard this done with such a sinister sense of menace, which studio recordings seem unable to articulate.


The brass had a raucous snarling quality in the March to the Scaffold creating an atmosphere of apocalyptic terror, further articulated by the swirling and jagged playing from the strings. In Dream of a Sabbath Night Dutoit encouraged the woodwind to sound sarcastic and shrill, rather like screaming demons. In the closing passages Dutoit really made the hallooing woodwind positively shriek – rarely ever heard here but adding an extra thrill. The timpanists (and two thudding bass drums) combined with the full swirling weight of the Philharmonia brought the work to a pile-driver conclusion. An exhilarating ending to a superlative evening.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Numbers 1-5; Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor):Warner Classics: 0927 47334-2

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14; Romeo & Juliette Love Scene, Op. 19; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch (conductor): RCA: CD 68979

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