Prom 45: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit – Debussy’s Petite Suite & Shostakovich 15 – Elisabeth Leonskaja plays Mozart K482

Debussy, orch. Henri Büsser
Petite Suite
Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 19 August, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2015.Photograph: BBC/Sarah JeynesA well-planned Prom, if with variable results. The opening item, Henri Bűsser’s Ravel-esque orchestration of Debussy’s Petite Suite (piano/four hands), was apparently last given at the Proms 88 years ago. Büsser’s scoring is so fine, superior to anything Debussy had done or indeed went on to do, that the resultant transcription manifestly does not deserve the neglect it has suffered over the years.

This performance was well worth waiting for. It was more than immaculate: Charles Dutoit’s empathy with his musicians often produces something of exceptional merit. The Royal Philharmonic, on its day, is the equal of any other British orchestra in terms of finesse and musicality, and here was an outing to treasure: internal balance, beauty of tone, phrasing and style were evident from the first bar to the last. (Debussy’s friend Henri Büsser was nearly 102 when he died in 1973.)

Elisabeth Leonskaja in Mozart’s K482 Concerto promised much, but overall one must count this performance as less than wholly convincing. No Mozart Piano Concerto is easy to play, but this one in E-flat poses more problems than most, principally because in other such works (such as K467 and K488) the soloist takes the lead virtually throughout, but K482 is more properly described as a ‘Sinfonia concertante’.

As in virtually every large-scale concert work Mozart wrote in E-flat, there is a spaciousness and overall cohesion that demands much from the orchestra. Dutoit was not in any material regard greatly at fault here, for the opening would-be ritornello – in effect, a symphonic exposition – was admirably presented, the tempo just right and played in a manner that possibly recalled Beecham to some older concert-goers, but from her first entry Leonskaja seemed uncertain whether to blend with the orchestra or to stand apart.

Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat major with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2015.Photograph: BBC/Sarah JeynesAfter a rather hesitant first entry, she settled admirably, albeit the tempo changed rather more than perhaps it ought, until we reached the cadenza. And at this point, your correspondent must part company with the soloist, who chose to play those by Benjamin Britten. Now, Britten was one of the greatest musicians of the last century, but he was never a scholar, nor was he (therefore) much of a stylist in the interpretation of music by certain other composers. The cadenzas (there is also one for the finale) he supplied to Sviatoslav Richter for K482 are, frankly, unbelievably misjudged. That for the first movement especially is in very bad mode – quite apart from the musical irrelevances, it appears to have been written for a different sized piano than Mozart had at his disposal, and the content destroys the flow and argument of the movement rather than illuminating it. What Britten wrote would have been unthinkable in Mozart’s day. Perhaps a little unnerved by what he had just heard, Dutoit began the second movement at a tempo too slow to ensure the myriad sections would cohere organically. The Finale was the most successful, but the problems of a coherent pulse running through the various tempo changes caught both conductor and soloist out more than once.

Although the Mozart Concerto scarcely demanded an encore from the soloist, one was glad it did, for Leonskaja’s reading of Chopin’s D-flat Nocturne (Opus 27/2) was in the superlative class: here was Chopin-playing, indeed early-Romanticism, at its finest.

I met Shostakovich twice, once at the premiere at Covent Garden of Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera Taverner, and in Cambridge – en route (I think) to Dublin to pick up an honorary degree, which was just after Symphony 15 (1972) had come out. BBC Radio 3 had broadcast (before it had been played outside of Russia) a recording of the first performance, in Moscow conducted by his son Maxim (preceded by a fascinating talk by Robert Layton), and I was asked if I’d like to go to Cambridge and meet him.

We were all in this room, not too big, and queued up to be presented to the great man. He was with his lovely third wife, and was looking everywhere very furtively through his thick-lens specs, and had an interpreter on hand and also a butch KGB man bored out of his skull. It came to my turn, and I said how privileged I was to meet him, albeit briefly: he wasn’t interested in me (why should he have been?) but was polite, and then I said I had a theory about the Fifteenth Symphony – this seemed to get his interest a little, and through the interpreter asked what it was. I said, “The Symphony is the story of a man’s life” – he fixed me with a stare, and said quietly – in English – “You are correct”. And that was that!

It was claimed that Shostakovich could not speak English, but he could, as a book, The Incredible Mile by Howard Elvin, published in London round about 1947, tells of Elvin, on a tour of immediate post-war Russia in 1946, finding himself on a train with Shostakovich in the same compartment, had a conversation with the composer – in English!

When Shostakovich was with Britten, for example, he was always either with an interpreter or a prominent member of the Party, and never ‘let on’ that he understood the language. He certainly understood my question, for his reply came immediately. My theory about Symphony 15 is that I believe the William Tell Overture was the first piece of music that really impacted on the imagination of Shostakovich as a boy – the later ‘fate’ motif (Wagner), alongside direct and half-remembered self-quotations are evident in this musical journey which ends with a flickering heart-beat from a composer physically enfeebled, perhaps resigned to his destiny and waiting for his heart to stop.

Throughout the Symphony are fleeting references to his own and to works by other composers, producing a score of considerable originality. It is by no means an easy work to bring off – or with which to hold an audience’s attention – but this was a performance that held many in the Hall totally, Dutoit revealing the composer’s considerable courage in putting himself, so to speak, through a kind of self-portrait, exerting a fascination and moving character throughout. The result was an account of great penetration and depth, outstandingly well played (not least by cellist Tim Gill and trombonist Matthew Gee), and very moving.

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