Once again, Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra hit the spot. The great mystery and mastery of Dutoit’s conducting is how he can be both expansive and precise at the same time and how he communicates this to his players, who repay the favour to their artistic director and principal conductor with interest.
You wouldn’t necessarily have thought that Dutoit’s saturnine, rather Proustian persona would open the door to the child’s world of play and fantasy that renders Ravel’s Mother Goose music as potent as, say, Alice in Wonderland – it’s all there, the seriousness that can so quickly be turned on its head, the unassailable logic of the child’s mind, and the capacity for wonder. The RPO’s wind-players distinguished themselves with a fine French sound that oscillated between warmth and urgency, particularly in the opening ‘Pavane’, with the support of the strings’ diaphanous languor. The intricacies of percussion, harp and celesta glistened in the ‘Empress of the Pagodas’, and the eruption of fountains at the close of ‘The Enchanted Garden’ clinched the spirit of this lovely work and its supernatural orchestration.
Vadim Repin is often compared with Maxim Vengerov, because both are Siberian. Really, though, they are Yin and Yang, with Repin’s instincts deferring more to restraint, poise and introspection. In his Violin Concerto No.2, Prokofiev was aiming at a Soviet-friendly clarity and simplicity, which Dutoit duly encouraged. Set against Repin’s questing, subtly individualistic self-containment, there developed a fascinating game of mood annexation, with Repin asserting a sense of spectral ambivalence in the first movement that leaked into the Romeo and Juliet-style lyricism of the slow movement. Dutoit brought out wonderful neutrality to the staccato arpeggios of the strings’ and clarinet’s accompaniment for the opening that made Repin’s expressive tonal beauties all the more ambiguous. Perhaps a more unbuttoned approach from him would have served the Finale better, but his stunning playing homed in on the music’s acerbic bite, shadowed by bass drum rumblings as sinister as any KGB spook on the prowl. However, I still don’t hear how the castanets will be folded into any account of this lean, paradoxically straightforward, profoundly oblique work.
Re-title Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 as the ‘Brave New World’, and it was an apt work to perform on the day another General Election was confirmed, and under Dutoit’s direction, there was much to be nostalgic about. Readings often strain to make it into a monument. Dutoit favoured its intimacy, an approach that made the visionary moments all the more powerful. Whether Bohemian or American, the open-air flowed out of the music, and the blend of hope and longing that Dutoit revealed was irresistible. It was the sort of conducting that both played and galvanised the musicians, and the RPO responded in a way that defined the Symphony’s style, scale and sound.
Such rapport doesn’t just happen, but the result was as fresh and direct as I’ve heard it. The slow movement – Largo – was very special, the musical equivalent of one of those vast American Sublime paintings that used to be toured around the US during the 19th-century, realised with uncanny insight – and the playing, with all the romantic paraphernalia of horn-calls, a fabulous cor anglais solo from Patrick Flanagan and a fathomless brass chorale, was endlessly subtle and deeply satisfying.