Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dutoit – Berlioz & Tchaikovsky – James Ehnes plays Barber

Overture Le corsaire, Op.21
Violin Concerto, Op.14
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

James Ehnes (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 8 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Charles DutoitYou will still hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra spoken about as London’s ‘poor relation’ orchestra, yet the quality of its playing warrants silence from detractors. Not that the players would get away with much less than perfection under Charles Dutoit, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, king of plush stereo splendour in his Decca days. On the podium he’s as suave as can be, economical but graceful and always seeking clarity from his musicians. He got it in spades in the Berlioz, strings tackling the rapid deluge of notes with remarkable unanimity and brass to the fore without overwhelming their colleagues. Maybe the wind erred a little at times in a few tricky rhythmic moments, but the vigour and charm of the performance made for a cracker of an opener.

James Ehnes. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaThe gentle lyricism of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto prompted an abrupt change of gear. James Ehnes injected a little urgency into the warmly melodic first movement; it rarely taxed his faultless technique but his projection and throaty tone carried the work in some of its less convincing moments. It’s pretty firmly established in the repertoire, but I’ve my doubts: Barber doesn’t generate much colour with his relatively modest orchestra and, even within the characteristically spare mid-century American soundworld, his harmonic writing seems thin. Then there’s the problem of the brief toccata-like finale: taken full tilt it’s over in a flash and unconnected to the two slower movements that precede it. Ehnes overcame that issue with a steadier last movement than we often hear; a little more related to the work’s lyricism and a little less like a mocking challenge to the young violinist due to premiere the work who had declared the rest of it “too easy”. Ehnes gave Paganini’s final Caprice (the one used for so many sets of Variations by various composers) as an encore: superbly executed, if a little short on devilish flair.

The RPO’s playing proved to be the main attraction in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The strings astonished with their depth of tone and nuances of phrasing; the sombre tread of the opening ‘fate’ motif was well captured by the clarinets and the brassy climaxes never trampled the balance. Dutoit’s hand was clearly heard in the shaping of the first movement’s ebb and flow: not the most dramatic or nerve-jangling account, but a valid view and one that seemed to be tantalisingly holding back the real power for later. But in the Andante cantabile – between the endless scope of dusky colour given by the strings at the opening and the first interruption of the ‘fate’ motif, to be precise – Dutoit lost me; his slick control and sophistication growing suffocating rather than intoxicating. An endless display of finely turned phrases and sculpted climaxes begged questions. Was anything ever at stake here? Were there depths beyond Dutoit’s shimmering surface? There’s no correct answer to the question of Tchaikovsky’s sincerity in his apparently jubilant embrace of fate, but, on this occasion, not all of the hollowness was Tchaikovsky’s.

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