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Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky: Debussy, Jeux: Poème Dansé; Ravel, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G; Stravinsky, Petrushka (1911 version). Jean-Philippe Collard (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit. Cheltenham Town Hall, 21st October 2005 (JQ)

 

The Philharmonia Orchestra is now busily celebrating its sixtieth anniversary season. Ironically, coinciding with that anniversary, London’s Royal Festival Hall, which the Philharmonia helped to inaugurate in 1951, and where it is now a resident orchestra, is closed for refurbishment. This means that the orchestra is spending even more time that usual on the road. That is Cheltenham’s gain for the Philharmonia will be giving four concerts in the town this season, of which this was the first. This was also the first concert in Cheltenham’s annual season of orchestral concerts.

I must say I was mildly surprised, given the eminence of the conductor and soloist, the attractiveness of the programme and the presence of the Philharmonia that there were any empty seats at all but the hall was still pretty full. The programme and artists presented an enticing prospect and that promise was fulfilled.

 

This programme presented one or two practical problems for the performers. In the first place the stage at Cheltenham Town Hall is not especially large whereas the extravagant orchestral forces specified by Stravinsky in his original score for Petrushka, which Charles Dutoit chose to perform in preference to the 1947 revision (hooray!) are very large. This meant that the band was squeezed onto every available inch of the platform and one or two compromises had to be made. The percussion section was split into two very widely spaced groups (or three if you count the timpani). The brass were precariously perched on narrow tiers above and behind the rest of the orchestra, which must have presented balance problems – all successfully overcome. Finally, though 10 celli and 8 basses were included in the personnel list in the programme book I counted only six of each onstage; presumably there just wasn’t room for the remainder. I suspect also that there may have been slightly fewer desks than usual of the other string sections. No matter. Those string players who could be accommodated played splendidly and were not overwhelmed by any means by the serried ranks of woodwind and brass.

The other difficulty facing the performers was the acoustical properties of Cheltenham Town Hall. The acoustics are, frankly, not all that good. To my ears at least the sound that is produced can be fairly plain and unflattering, through no fault of the musicians and there’s insufficient space round the sound. This means that it’s difficult for a large orchestra to achieve a genuine pianissimo and tuttis can sound more powerful than the players intend. I though Dutoit and his players coped extremely well with the acoustics and the platform conditions already mentioned but they must be longing for the spacious platform and sympathetic acoustics of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, where they repeat much of this programme next week.

It was a shrewd piece of planning to have Jeux and Petrushka on the same programme since both were written within a short time of each other and for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Debussy’s score, which dates from 1912, opened the concert. It’s his last orchestral work and I’ve always found it an elusive score. The work is typical of the repertoire in which Charles Dutoit has particularly made his name – as, indeed, are the other two works performed in this concert – and it was immediately clear that he has a deep understanding of and empathy for this music. The very opening, for example, is extremely difficult to bring off. In another hall and in a more sympathetic acoustic I suspect the Philharmonia would have achieved an even greater hush than they did here in the opening pages but this passage, where Debussy is establishing atmosphere, were still pretty impressive. Throughout the performance there was a nice lift to the rhythms and this was emphasised and, no doubt, inspired by Dutoit’s graceful gestures to the players. These were almost balletic, though never obtrusive or affected, and were usually from the waist up. There were some lovely string textures to admire and also plenty of agile and fluent wind playing.

 

Though much of Debussy’s score is delicate and refined there are red-blooded passages too and neither conductor nor players were reticent in giving these their due weight. I thought Dutoit balanced the orchestra very well indeed and he shaped the piece with understanding. The concluding, subtle pay-off was splendidly realised. It is, as I said, an elusive work and, for me, not an obvious concert opener. Perhaps that was why the applause for this very good performance sounded respectful rather than enthusiastic.

 

Thought there is a story of sorts behind Jeux it is, in essence, an abstract piece of music and certainly when compared to Petrushka. I suppose I should come clean and say this is my favourite among Stravinsky’s works. It’s less discursive than Firebird and though I find Le Sacre viscerally thrilling Petrushka seems to me to be an almost perfect creation, combining virtuoso orchestral writing, rhythmic verve, memorable thematic inspiration and a real sense of theatricality and narrative drive. Though I can enjoy hearing the slimmed-down 1947 revision of the score I was delighted that Dutoit had opted to give us the full ballet in Stravinsky’s original, very full scoring.

 

We were treated to a quite marvellous performance. The score teems with detail and invention and Dutoit displayed a marvellously acute ear for detail. It was obvious from his gestures to the orchestra exactly where he wanted the emphasis to be at any one time. I’m sure the performance had been scrupulously rehearsed but it sounded spontaneous. The score abounds in demanding solo passages for all manner of instruments – and at the end Dutoit very rightly gave a large number of players individual bows – and without exception the players were on top form. In a performance of such corporate excellence it’s perhaps invidious to single out individuals but I thought the principal trumpet was marvellous and the tone that the first flute player produced for his solos was quite wonderful.

 

As I’ve said, Dutoit ensured that all sorts of detail registered – quiet string pizzicati, for example – but he was equally adept at conveying the bigger picture and ensuring that the story was told. Thus, for instance, the bustle of the Shrovetide Fair came across superbly and the scene between the Moor, the ballerina and Petrushka was vividly portrayed. I thought the pathos of the ending was managed very well indeed. It’s appropriate, perhaps, that on this short provincial tour the work that sometimes will replace Petrushka is by Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. This performance exhibited a riot – albeit a splendidly controlled riot - of orchestral colour and demonstrated how much in these early days Stravinsky was indebted to Rimsky’s example as an orchestrator. One of the strengths of Dutoit’s handling of the score was that he brought out well its “Russian-ness”.

 

It seemed clear to me that the orchestra members were enjoying themselves and that came through in the commitment of their playing. It was equally clear that they have a great deal of respect for Dutoit and that was evident from the applause that they accorded him at the end of the concert, far more than one often sees given to a conductor by an orchestra.

 

Between these two Diaghilev-inspired scores we heard Ravel’s wonderful G major concerto. For this the orchestra was joined by Jean-Philippe Collard. I’ve long admired his 1979 EMI recording of the piece with Maazel. Since he made that recording his hair may have turned a distinguished grey but his playing has lost none of its sparkle and substance. He launched into the jazz-influenced first movement with élan and enthusiasm and there was much athletic finger work in evidence. But in the many lyrical passages he was refined and sensitive. This was an assured and sprightly performance and the strength of his technique was consistently evident, not least in that wonderful short passage where the soloist plays the lyrical second subject in trills. It must be fiendishly difficult to play this seamlessly and I’ve never heard anyone surpass Michelangeli’s achievement at this point in his 1957 EMI recording but Collard ran him very close indeed on this occasion. Throughout this movement Ravel’s wonderfully piquant orchestration was realised with great panache by Dutoit and the orchestra.

 

Collard was all poise and poetry in the gently luminous second movement. He shaped the long opening solo with exquisite grace and style. The whole movement was played on an exalted level by all concerned. If I have one very small criticism of any aspect of Collard’s performance it is that in the heart-easing passage when the cor anglais reprises the opening theme the filigree finger work with which the soloist decorates and adorns the melody was perhaps just a touch too discreet. But this is a very minor point indeed and better by far that the playing should be discreet at this point than at all heavy-handed. The pithy finale was exhilarating and as full of wit as it should be. Collard’s finger work was brilliant and the accompaniment was suitably cheeky. This movement, and indeed the whole concerto, is a demanding test of the conductor, containing as it does so many small orchestral interjections, each of which must be delivered with razor-sharp accuracy. Dutoit never put a foot wrong and so ensured that his players didn’t either. At the end Collard seemed almost diffident in acknowledging the very enthusiastic applause. He had no need for diffidence for his was a masterly performance.

 

The whole evening was hugely enjoyable and the Cheltenham season has been launched auspiciously. There’s one more thing to praise. The Philharmonia’s programme book was exceptionally good value at £2. It contained amongst other things a very well written history of the orchestra and some excellent notes on the music by Wendy Thompson that were detailed but extremely readable.

  

This was the first outing of this programme on the Philharmonia’s short tour. The same artists are repeating this programme in The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 25 and 30 October (the latter of these concerts starts at 3.00 p.m.); and in The Anvil, Basingstoke on 28 October. The same first half can be heard in the De Montfort Hall Leicester on 24 October, in Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 26 October and in St. David’s Hall, Cardiff on 27 October but for these three concerts Petrushka will be replaced by an equally colourful showpiece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade. If you live near any of these venues and can get a ticket I strongly recommend this programme to you and hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

John Quinn

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