From the opening bars of the Overture to Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, you couldn’t help marvelling at London’s extraordinary good fortune in its big five orchestras and in their chief conductors. I suppose Charles Dutoit (recently turned eighty) must now be regarded as a veteran, but there is no sense of him compensating self-consciously with the gathering years, as Solti did towards the end of his career. Dutoit’s empathy with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is evident above all in his complete trust in its musicians, which not only opened the field to some perfectly judged and idiomatic playing in the Berlioz but also guaranteed a superbly tactile ensemble, and Dutoit is a genius at tapering a phrase to a close while ushering the next one into being. This ensured Berlioz at his most expansive; buoyed up by the sheen of the strings and a stylish sound from the woodwinds. If the overall effect veered close to the portentous, it was never going to do any harm to the spirit of the music.
Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was similarly true to its idiom, the whole and eventually triumphant scheme set in motion by the balletic bite and angularity of the first two movements, the blatant irony emphasised by the strings’ extra ballast and precision. The Adagio flowed naturally out of this, its serenity constantly undermined by Dutoit’s revealing the nagging unease that is threaded through it, while the impulsive energy of the Finale, with its particularly hair-raising coda, was conducted and delivered with such panache that for once it didn’t sound like music written, even by Prokofiev’s prodigious standards, in haste. Dutoit’s greatest gift was to counterbalance the Symphony’s perceived high spirits with some very dark shadows.
Elisabeth Leonskaja was at her most ingratiating in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, even if her impassive manner initially didn’t give much away. It is always fascinating to hear where the soloist goes after the drama of the opening. Leonskaja kept grandness on the back burner until her stupendous roulades towards the end of the first movement – it is an awesome experience when she lets rip with volume and weight – but romantic rhetoric was tempered by lyrical finesse, and her mastery at phasing the piano in and out of the orchestra is second to none, and was in complete accord with Dutoit. She filtered, with consummate skill, the Adagio through an impressionist gauze of Chopin and Liszt, then readjusted brilliantly to the fantasy and momentum of the Finale adding Lisztian grandeur to the majestic coda.