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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz:  Philharmonia orchestra, Charles Dutoit conductor, Mikhail Pletnev (piano),  Queen Elizabeth Hall, 02.11.2006 (GD)




From the arresting D minor opening of the Don Giovanni overture, followed by superbly articulated eerie pp veiled configurations on the strings, it was apparent that Dutoit had rehearsed the orchestra thoroughly. What a contrast this concert was to a rather depressing one by the same orchestra last week! I think it was Mahler who once said, ‘there are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors’. Of course such general statements are shot through with an often misleading rhetoric, but this one certainly has a grain of truth within it. Dutoit maintained a sustained buoyant and dramatic D major allegro for the rest of the overture and played one of the more economic concert endings.

Dutoit proved himself to be a most perceptive accompanist in the Beethoven First Piano concerto in C, Op 15 (actually a concerto Beethoven composed after the so called Piano Concerto No 2). A great deal of attention was paid to observing the correct dynamics of the piece, with some particularly effective woodwind playing of which the concerto abounds. Unfortunately this cannot be said of Pletnev’s contribution. This was frustrating, because Pletnev’s actual tone was compellingly clear; a virtuoso performance. The problem was more to do with Pletnev’s wilful ignoring of the composer’s instructions. Where Beethoven asks for a sostenuto, as in the opening exposition,  Pletnev indulged  in all manner of tempo/rhythmic  distortions and rubato; where Beethoven asks for a mezzo-forte Pletnev gave us a pianissimo; where a fortissimo is shown Pletnev gave us a mezzo-forte, or a pianissimo, and so on. It says a lot for Dutoit’s accompanying skills that he managed to keep the concerto together. Overall, and despite Pletnev’s indulgences, Dutoit maintained quite a swift pace throughout. The Largo second movement was sustained and contemplative without ever dragging as it so often does. The final Rondo, Allegro scherzando was swift but sustained with marvellously pointed woodwind interjections over real scherzando and rhythmically alert orchestral projections. Despite the usual constrictions of the hall Dutoit maintained a marvellous orchestral balance with timpani and trumpets having just the right projective edge.

One reason why Berlioz gave the ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ a kind of narrative programme was to get the piece performed, to make a ‘public splash’, as one commentator has put it. Indeed from its 1830 premiere (under Habeneck’s direction) it achieved quite a success and even won the Prix de Rome; it was undoubtedly one of his most popular works, in contrast to the composer’s later failures, and remains that today. Undoubtedly the composer’s obsession (at the time of writing the symphony) with the actress Harriet Smithson did have something to do with the work’s emotional charge, and even the programme of unrequited love and violent death, but I think it is a mistake to read too much into this. Conductors, over the years, have certainly exploited these ‘romantic’ overtones and subjected the work to all manner of interpretive excess. But if one takes the trouble to consult the score and particularly the composer’s tempo instructions, it will be found that Berlioz was actually attempting a kind of post-Beethoven symphonic experiment. Remember Beethoven’s death occurred only two years before the work’s premiere. It is surely a rather out-worn tradition which has invested so much rhetorical baggage in the work’s ‘romantic’ reputation. The third movement ‘Scene aux Champs’ is marked ‘adagio’, and many conductors ,including the Berlioz ‘specialist’ Colin Davis, take this movement at an extremely slow and ponderous tempo. But then we read that Berlioz’s actual tempo marking is crotchet equals 84, a quite flowing tempo, more an andante.


Dutoit generally played the work in a quite swift and sustained manner. Whereas many conductors (Charles Munch for example, another Berlioz ‘specialist’) whip up the fourth movement ‘March au supplice’to a tremendously fast tempo, Dutoit observed the composer’s explicit ‘Allegretto non troppo’ marking, a sustained and rather macabre death march; here Dutoit emphasised the sheer originality of the work’s orchestral texture with wonderfully growling bass trombones and gurgling contra-bassoons, but without ever introducing any note of Grand Guignol. Dutoit incorporated Berlioz’s quite innovative orchestration within a wider symphonic structure. Similarly the last movement ‘Witches’ sabbath’ was sustained and marvellously rhythmically inflected, sounding more sinister thereby. The gloomy intonation of the ‘Dies Irae’ figure was compellingly matched ( in tempo and texture) with the contrapuntal ‘Ronde du Sabbat’  Throughout the whole performance I was aware of orchestral nuances, thematic articulation, rhythmic and harmonic inflections, which are possible only from a conductor who knows and understands the work thoroughly. The second movement ‘Un bal, Valse, (without cornets here) was articulated with exquisite grace and elegance in contrast with the sustained symphonic power of the first movement. The Beethovenian dramatic double- bass recitatives, at the climax of the ‘Scene aux champs’, were inflected with just the right degree of contrasting tension. The Philharmonia bass section responded well to Dutoit’/Berlioz’s demands only lacking in that degree of  deep sonority one hears in, say, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestra. Dutoit rightly gradated the timpani section of distant gloom at the end of the ‘Scene aux champs’ with great care for dynamics and texture…never too loud but wholly menacing as a prefiguration of the ‘Marche au supplice’. One point of criticism ( more a quibble) but important all the same, was Dutoit’s arrangement of the first and second violins on his left side, rather than dividing firsts and seconds on the right and left of the orchestral spectrum. This is how Berlioz would have heard the violin writing. And if applied a whole range of fascinating antiphonal effects come into play, which are only alluded to in the modern violin arrangement. But overall this did not seriously impair Dutoit’s performance which was one of the most compelling I have heard in concert (and on record) for a long time.



Geoff Diggines


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