Philharmonia Dutoit

Béatrice et Bénédict – Overture
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 October, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This concert, given in memory of Philharmonia Orchestra violist Robert Leighton (1943-2004) started most unpromisingly with what sounded like an under-rehearsed performance of the Overture to Béatrice and Bénédict, all the more regrettable since this is one of Berlioz’s trickiest, most underplayed, yet most sublime works, which should be played with wit, polish and panache. This was a mediocre rendition with sloppy co-ordination, exaggerated fortissimos, and an all-purpose forcefulness substituting for finesse.

Altogether better was Yefim Bronfman in Beethoven’s Concerto No.4. This was something of an antidote to those new-age, touchy-feely Beethoven performances. Bronfman is a man-sized virtuoso and Dutoit is a natural accompanist (he’s also had plenty of practice sticking to his one-time partner, the unpredictable Martha Argerich). There was nothing remotely new-age about this performance: a full complement of strings and a soloist for whom forte means forte. Fortunately there was more to it than that. Bronfman is capable of delicacy and is a rather good chamber-music player who actually listens to what is going on in the orchestra; this quality is particularly welcome in this concerto for which Bronfman played the most familiar of Beethoven’s cadenzas and displayed real sensitivity and made some unusual decisions in the slow movement. Not a ‘regular’ performance, then, but certainly a valid alternative to more conventional interpretations.

The concert’s highpoint came with the Symphonie fantastique. I do not warm to Dutoit’s podium antics, which seem to double-dot every I and double-cross every T. However, on this occasion, conducting without a score, it was obvious that Dutoit knew every nook and cranny of the work and energised the Philharmonia Orchestra, which responded with total commitment. This was a volatile, high-Romantic view, the antithesis of Colin Davis’s controlled classicism.

There is a warmth about the Philharmonia’s string playing and an overall balance between the sections which yields fine results in Berlioz; 50 years ago Karajan made a characteristically polished recording of this piece with the Orchestra and the same pertinent qualities still apply today. An elegant ‘Valse’, a sensitive but forward-moving ‘Scène aux champs’ with some especially sophisticated clarinet playing from Barnaby Robson, the timpani at the close closely observed and unusually carefully balanced. The ‘March to the scaffold’ may have lacked the ultimate in menace – it was just a bit too fast for that – but with cornets in full cry it certainly packed a fine visceral punch and also made one think that in a world where people are still regularly decapitated, mankind has advanced not at all since the French Revolution. In the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale there was notably fine playing from both the violas and cellos, and the whole movement went off with formidable momentum, the tension never letting up till that final blaze of brass; a fine and convincing realisation.

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