West Australian Symphony Orchestra/Dutoit

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Women of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra Chorus

West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 25 November, 2005
Venue: Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia

This was Charles Dutoit’s second appearance as a guest conductor of the West Australia Symphony Orchestra – the first was in 1977! The interim has seen many conductors come and go in Perth, and, no doubt, many fine performances. But few can have equalled the combination of elegance and verve on display in this concert in which both orchestra and conductor were given the opportunity to display their wares with the works of two composers whose fame rests, in part, on their innovative approaches to orchestration.

The three panels of Debussy’s Nocturnes can be heard as deploying an orchestral palette seeking to overturn functional harmony and rhythm in favour of ‘stillness in movement’, whereas in Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz is content to twist existing forms to serve his programmatic ends with astonishingly bold harmonies and scoring. It’s been said that Berlioz’s technique resulted from his playing the guitar rather than the piano; a specious argument perhaps, but he did say that the guitar was like looking at an orchestra through the wrong end of a pair of opera glasses.

These were often-remarkable performances; if perfection eluded them it was in the form of some less-than-tight ensemble and minor intonation problems with the brass and woodwinds. The first of the Nocturnes, ‘Nuages’ was all balance and poise, Dutoit eliciting from the orchestra a rich yet transparent sound which he captured, as in a beaker, and poured into the multi-hued ‘Fêtes’, producing some glorious climaxes in the process. The too-up-front singing and imprecise entries of the Chorus marred the serene motion of ‘Sirènes’.

Dutoit then unleashed an explosive performance of the Berlioz, a work he could conduct in his sleep. No evidence of a soporific approach here though, unless, appropriately, in the dreamy opening of the first movement with some beautifully shaped phrasing in the strings. Or in the bucolic Adagio, where the duet between cor anglais and oboe proved a highlight in what turned out to be a perfectly judged interlude between the swirling ‘Valse’ and the tremendous ‘March to the Scaffold’. Here the brass came into its own, blazing out gloriously and presaging the ‘Dies Irae’ chorale in the final movement with uncanny skill; in this, timpani and bass drums added their thunder not only to the brass’s contribution but that of the devilish woodwinds and strings in a phantasmagoria of sound.

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