Beatrice and Benedict – Overture
Tout un monde lointain…
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

Truls Mørk (cello)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Make no mistake – the London Philharmonic Orchestra is presently on the up as regards ensemble and programming, with some of the most interesting and well-planned concerts to be heard in London this season. This was but one example, with – at its centre – a welcome revival of Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… a work which, like several others from his small but significant output, has spent some time quietly working its way into the modern repertoire.

Cast in five continuous sections, each inspired and headed with a quotation from Baudelaire, this 27-minute piece exemplifies the fine-honed intensity which is a feature of Dutilleux’s maturity. The opening soliloquy introduces the ideas that will be discreetly transformed over its course. Ruminative and capricious by turns, the mood is serious in a genial rather than earnest manner – presenting the cello in an ever-changing context that continually modifies the soloist’s harmonies while enhancing its ongoing line. It was here that Truls Mørk particularly excelled, maintaining continuity even in the most speculative passages, and ensuring a cumulative focus that seems purposely to overshoot the formal bounds of the piece in its closing stage. As with Shostakovich’s second concerto, this is music into whose spirit Mørk seems intuitively able to enter. Jukka-Pekka Saraste directed with quiet authority and scrupulous attention to detail.

Earlier, he seemed disengaged by Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict overture – which had liveliness and charm, but little in the way of needle-sharp wit. The performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet was more persuasive. Saraste brought symphonic cohesion to a score that the composer reckoned excessive in length and scoring. The introduction emerged stealthily, and though the firebird’s dance was a touch sedate, the supplication scene was elegantly phrased – without its Scriabinesque overtones becoming cloying. The ensuing scherzo was lightly drawn, while the princesses’ round dance had a Debussyian restraint to temper any emotional indulgence. The music leading up to the Kastchei’s outburst is interesting more for its virtuoso orchestration than intrinsic substance, but Saraste piled on tension so that the Infernal Dance itself felt the sustained outcome of what proceeded it. The berceuse was affecting in its sombreness, with the apotheosis emerging almost breezily to wrap up the work in suitably celebratory fashion.

If not an overly scintillating performance, this was rarely less than an assured one and persuasive on its own terms. The playing was generally excellent (a crucial missed woodwind entry at the start of the berceuse notwithstanding): certainly enough to suggest that the LPO, after an often-uncertain decade, is again poised to ’compete’ with the finest orchestras here and abroad. The next season or two should be both interesting and productive for musicians and listeners alike.

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