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Seen and Heard Concert Review



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, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 25.10.2005 (ED)



Regular readers of Seen and Heard’s pages will have noticed a review by my colleague John Quinn of a concert featuring the same artists and works that took place in Cheltenham a few days ago. His remarks remain as yet unread by me (I wanted to present a ‘clean’ response as it were to what I heard), so it may be of interest for you to compare critical opinions.

The only discernable difference between the two reviewed events being the location brought to mind the role that space plays in musical performance. This is an often under-recognised or commented upon factor in relation to music making. It’s relevant too considering the Philharmonia occupy the QEH whilst the RFH is undergoing refurbishment. How to think of space in relation to music? Spatial balance (left vs. right) and special depth (foreground vs. background) are obvious and in live performance these are influenced by available stage space (density of players and dimensions of the stage being two major factors). It might not seem much but a change in seating pattern can have a profound difference in how the audience (another occupier of space with a necessary role for performance) perceives the works that are played. With the narrower and deeper QEH stage at their disposal the Philharmonia’s performances came across with startling clarity because associations and/or contrasts of instruments and textures were made that may not have been so apparent had stage layout not played a part.

Then consider the works themselves: two ballets and a concerto, both forms that might be concerned with space. Ballets scores given in concert forego dancing space, save perhaps the podium (depending upon the occupant and their manner!) Concertos serve to pit one against or alongside the many, bringing the different relationship of sound bodies and volume presences, which some have sought to interpret through visual media as a kind of abstract aural space.

Debussy’s Jeux gained from the extra intimacy the audience had with the orchestra, to the extent that at times it almost felt like we were a fourth party joining the musical tennis-ball finding exploits of the score. Notable was the attack Dutoit gained through fluid gestures, and the hazy light effects were dazzlingly portrayed by a rapt string tone.

Ravel’s concerto brought a performance of almost crystalline beauty and showed a singularity of vision between conductor and soloist. Dutoit and Collard took Ravel at his word in not making the work overly profound; to a large extent achieved though direct engagement with the music. So often a performance is marred by the manner of a star soloist – Collard’s sense was to place his manifest talents and idiomatic command at the service of Ravel. Perhaps in Collard’s playing accompanied passages occasionally were a shade under-projected, but this mattered relatively little given that affection for music was indisputably there.   The composer famously remarked that the solo passage which begins the second movement cost him dear. Collard’s playing of it brought out a sense of Ravel feeling his way through the music as he wrote it more than any other performance I have heard – live or recorded. Whereas most pianists might be content to make this a slow and even elegy, Collard realised the value of the spaces between Ravel’s notes that shape the rhythms and textures. The duet with cor anglais that ensued spellbindingly continued the approach.

Dutoit, foregoing half his podium space to accommodate the piano centre-stage, led reduced orchestral forces sensitively to bring out jazzy and lyrical elements of the score whilst affording quiet care to individual sonorities and phrases. The outer movements’ angular rhythms were emphasised through the impact of the percussion and brass in particular which served as an apt counterfoil to the soloist’s cleanly articulated foreground role in the sound picture.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka (like Jeux, a shrewd musical commission by Diaghilev) closed the programme in its original 1911 guise. Once more at full strength the Philharmonia gave a full-on account of the score. Dutoit’s lively interpretation brought to light for me how much Stravinsky streamlined his compositional thinking of the piece in the later version, as evident rough edges in the writing were not glossed over in this performance.  The fact the work is a showpiece for practically every orchestral department was revelled in – timpani and brass again standing out. Celli and double basses played with presence and menace in a way that earlier works had not called for, and Dutoit built the string sonorities upwards to employ an unearthly hushed viola tone and intense folk-like violin playing periodically.

When playing fortissimo, the volume verged on the uncomfortable momentarily, which personally I found acceptable and appropriate as an element in bringing the narrative alive.  At the work’s climax wind shrieks (superbly played) and menace build before a quizzical note of interrogation, which prompted me to ask: is the QEH an appropriately sized space for such performances? Yes it is, just. True, you’re almost subjected to the sound – there’s no escaping it, and as a result when faced with performances of this quality the experience is wholly enthralling.

Were I an orchestral musician, I’d be relishing playing to smaller yet more involved and rewarded capacity audiences for the foreseeable future – and hope to come back after the RFH eventually reopens. Were I a Philharmonia member I’d strongly consider Dutoit as a potential chief conductor when the time comes. But seeing as I am neither, my advice is this: you can’t borrow tickets, so you had better be prepared to beg for or steal any remaining ones in advance of Sunday’s repeat performance.



Evan Dickerson



John Quinn's review of the Cheltenham concert is HERE 


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