Were it not for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (and Walt Disney’s Fantasia with Mickey Mouse), the very self-critical Paul Dukas would probably be only known to those familiar with La Péri, Ariane et Barbe-bleue or the Symphony in C. Paavo Järvi conjured an assured and atmospheric Sorcerer, its colourful palette opening out gloriously from a tension-filled opening. His scrupulous approach allowed for plenty of mischief (including a perky bassoon), wild abandon (an exuberant piccolo adding to the brouhaha) and poignancy (a tender viola) – altogether impressive and invigorating.
Much the same could be said for a gripping performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – an Everest. Yet its fearsome demands are tempered by a dreaming delicacy; two facets superbly articulated by Denis Kozhukhin who valiantly met its challenges head on – the ebb and flow, blood and thunder oratory and wistful intimacies – bounded by an unaffected directness of expression and an integrity of vision aided and abetted by a well-balanced Philharmonia, Järvi coaxing subtle woodwind colouration and allowing passion to spill over at significant moments. A poetically-shaped ‘Intermezzo’ drew eloquence and brilliance, and rumination and variable excitement found their way into the Finale, the measured tempo just denying something edge-of-the-seat, but compensation came in the thunderous closing pages when piano and an unbridled orchestra locked horns to produce a grandstand finish. As an encore Kozhukhin offered ‘Til våren’ (To Spring), the sixth and final piece of Grieg’s Opus 43 set of Lyric Pieces, elegant and understated.
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is of startling imagery to which the Philharmonia responded with efficiency if not always alacrity. Järvi might have conjured a more intense opening for the hallucinations of ‘Réveries’ but nicely captured its sense of longing. Despair and elation were well-drawn in the ensuing ‘Passions’ (with exposition repeat) that built to a raging climax. Polish informed the ‘Ball’ movement, played with fondness but little sense of exhilaration. Cor anglais and (offstage) oboe made companionable shepherds in ‘Scène aux champs’, but quiet passages never quite held the attention, its extensive discourse lacking cohesion. Sinister horns initiated ‘March to the Scaffold’ (no repeat here), well-paced, with gutsy brass, woodwinds wailing and a cinematic execution. Most persuasive was the intensity of the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’; Nigel Black’s horn solo one of the quietest (and cleanest) I’ve ever heard – mesmerising. The phantasmagoria was rhythmically taut and colourfully etched (with a suitably strident ‘Dies irae’) yet its dramatic clangour needed a little more sweep and black magic.