Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit – Mahler 1 – Louis Lortie plays K503

Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.1

Louis Lortie (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 14 May, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Charles DutoitMusicians I’ve met who’ve worked with Charles Dutoit are full of praise for the way he draws out the best in them, and he’s clearly working his magic with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as its Principal Conductor, signalled from the start of this concert by a particularly strong reading of Mozart’s K503 Piano Concerto. I’ve recently been listening to Lortie’s Beethoven and Liszt (on Chandos), and in Mozart there was the same clarity and grasp of the bigger picture at work. His approach was also highly theatrical, Dutoit wading in at the start with assertiveness worthy of Beethoven, which Lortie then systematically undermined.You can have hours of fun fantasising about Mozart’s soloists’ opening gambits in the concertos – from glamorous Hollywood entrances at the top of glittering staircases to a new presence quietly slipping into a room.

Louis Lortie. Photograph: Kass KaraThe pianist’s entry in K503 is in the latter category, executed by Lortie with great sophistication and tact, like a party guest charming everyone and in the process assuming the role of host. Mozart’s piano concertos are often described as abstract operas, and Lortie made this vibrantly clear, combining variety of voice with consistency of character to a rare degree. I especially relished the moments when he singled out an orchestral player for a one-to-one chat, almost conducting, yet with Dutoit anticipating every move as though they were in the middle of a game of 3D chess. The first movement may be marked Maestoso, but Lortie lifted the veil on everything from Figaro-style high intrigue to Sonata Facile naivety, so that by the time we got to the reprise, we were putty in his hands. The RPO’s woodwind-players distinguished themselves in the slow movement, and Lortie gently tugged at the music’s formality with divertimento-style ease. This is music where Mozart says one thing but means another, something that the flair, wit and imagination of Lortie’s mercurial, perceptive playing completely embraced.

A similar long view and breadth of experience defined this account of Mahler’s First Symphony. Renowned for his way with French music, Dutoit brought his keen ear to bear on Mahler’s orchestration in a distinctive separation and depth of sound, delivered by the RPO with considerable finesse – the string-playing was extremely eloquent. Directing a performance that didn’t strive for effect, Dutoit enabled Mahler’s transforming processes to speak for themselves. So the opening curtain of sound, hovering between sounds of nature and creation myth, returned in the finale to overwhelm us with the distance the music had travelled. Or the graphic irony of the “Frère Jacques” funeral march – set in motion by Anthony Alcock’s memorably bleak double bass solo, the lilting middle section of the movement was not so much an interlude as a means of casting a new light on the theme. Dutoit had the knack of creating a sense off expectancy without giving anything away. He didn’t allow the first movement to get bogged down in episodic detail or to peak too soon, so that the impact of the true climax was particularly powerful; and his open-handed style came into its own in the finale, in a thrilling narrative of Mahler at his most intimate and most triumphant, correctly clinched by the horn section and other brass-players standing up to give even more heft to the Symphony’s closing pages.

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