Fantastic Symphony

Don Giovanni – Overture
Piano Concerto No 1 in C, Op.15
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 November, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Halloween witches came late to the South Bank with Charles Dutoit’s superlative reading of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which more than made up for a distinctly lacklustre first half, the programme having opened with a perfunctory, under-rehearsed performance of the overture to “Don Giovanni”. The most eccentrically wilful reading of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto one is ever likely to encounter followed.

To dispense with the Beethoven, Mikhail Pletnev – as is his wont – made his way onto the platform with excruciating slowness, garnering enormous applause on his distended way, and then toyed for several moments with the piano stool (rather as Victor Borge used to), garnering further applause when he finally turned it round. On the evidence of what followed, it might have been better had he left it as he first found it.

The concerto started promisingly enough with a fine account of the opening ritornello, Pletnev sitting all the while impassively, arms folded. The fun really started with his first entry, half speed. This was Beethoven through Alice’s ‘Looking-Glass’. If Beethoven marked it piano Pletnev played it forte (and vice versa), left-hand notes were alighted on and picked off as if they were bullet shots and every passing incident was milked for maximum effect; Dutoit’s former wife, Martha Argerich, can be difficult to predict when it comes to rubato, but Pletnev gave us a master-class in fantasy, none of it having much to do with what Beethoven actually wrote: the finale for instance set off at a helter-skelter presto rather than the marked Allegro, the orchestra’s initial tutti being more or less unplayable at this speed.

Dutoit has a much wider repertoire than we are allowed to hear in his appearances with London orchestras; but it’s difficult to complain given the degree of conviction that this ‘Fantastique’. A shame though that the violins were not antiphonal and that the timpani’s recreation of distant thunder at the close of ‘Scène aux champs’ was curiously workaday.

For the rest though there can only be praise. Conducting from memory, Dutoit clearly knows every nook and cranny of this miraculous score. Demonstrative his podium style may be, but he galvanised the orchestra into recapturing all the passions of first love and at the same time in clarifying the score’s more problematic corners – for instance, seldom has that long tricky build-up to the first movement coda been more effectively realised or the ‘Scène aux champs’, taken at a swift tempo, flowed quite so unaffectedly. There were some outstanding individual contributions, notably the subtle, secure first horn (Laurence Davies) and the vivid bass trombone (Christian Jones), enormously present in ‘Marche au supplice’ – which incidentally vividly played up the blood-lust of the baying crowd as well as its more usual grotesque and sinister aspects – not to mention the fine, plangent cor anglais (Jill Crowther) in ‘Scène aux champs’.

This was the Philharmonia Orchestra in all its sophisticated glory, playing with a remarkable combination of polish and panache.

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