Seen and Heard Concert Review
Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz: Philharmonia orchestra, Charles Dutoit conductor, Mikhail Pletnev (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, 02.11.2006 (GD)
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 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.