Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Charles Dutoit conducts Ein Heldenleben, Julia Fischer plays Beethoven

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Julia Fischer (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 30 March, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is certainly pulling-in top-flight soloists: Pinchas Zukerman is a regular (and also as a conductor); Martha Argerich occasionally turns up; and now violinist Julia Fischer is on the books. Much of it, no doubt, stems from the connections of the orchestra’s illustrious Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Charles Dutoit, a conductor of considerable powers, whose post-interval orchestral-rep performances can be as big a draw as the pre-interval star-studded concertos.

Julia FischerHere were two works of roughly equivalent length and two performances not quite hitting the mark. Fischer brought the Beethoven concerto, a work she played in this hall a decade ago, as a teenager. Dutoit set a swift tempo for the opening movement and Fischer played with her trademark faultless intonation and crisp articulation. She projected over the orchestra with ease and just occasionally met the eye of the leader to assure a chamber-like unanimity of purpose. When it came to Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza, she moved into it with surprising lightness, raising the temperature steadily to make the contrast with the gentle coda all the greater. But some of her characteristic quiet concentration seemed absent and too often her seriousness of purpose came off as overly severe.

The RPO gave a delectable introduction to the slow movement, precisely weighted and articulated, but again Fischer seemed deadly serious. Her body-language changed for the finale: she looked as though she wanted to have some fun and gave the music a dancing sparkle. Her astonishing volume of sound in the final cadenza was playfully at odds with the faux-innocence of the following passage, but little delights such as this only made the severity of the first movement all the more inexplicable. She deserved serious respect, however, for remaining unfazed by the army of latecomers allowed in after the first movement, whose noisy invasion seemed to last forever: a shame considering the quiet attentiveness of the rest of the audience throughout. Fischer played a Paganini Caprice as an encore.

Charles DutoitBeethoven’s Violin Concerto might come close to Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in terms of duration, but there the comparison ends. The first radiates worldly wisdom, the other remains problematic even to its composer’s fans. Strauss’s potentially embarrassing self-aggrandising portrait of himself and his achievements might have become a footnote in music history were it not quite so forcefully beautiful. Within Strauss paints himself as lover, artist, vanquisher of enemies and critics, and bringer of peace, the work opening with one of his most thrillingly strident musical statements and rarely lets up from there.

Charles Dutoit certainly has the level head to see past the composer’s bluster: his carefully paced account brought the whole into focus, but he held back from engaging with the lurid intensity of it all and missed something in the process. The concern for clarity drew out the thematic connections that underpin the work, yet the playing didn’t quite match the RPO’s recent best and lacked some of the heft that would have turned Strauss’s extravagant orchestration into a tidal wave of sound. Duncan Riddell excelled, though, with the violin solos that paint a portrait of the Hero’s wife. But, overall, if Ein Heldenleben is going to be successful, perhaps there should be no diluting of Strauss’s egomania.

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