It can be a pleasurable experience to spend a day wondering the streets of Rome admiring its many ornate fountains, and with Ottorno Respighi as your guide it is hard to go wrong. Charles Dutoit certainly urged the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to revel in the opulence of Respighi’s orchestration as the four fountain depictions progressed. The half-light textures of The Valle Giulia at Dawn were conveyed through some beautifully poised playing by the woodwinds, though the cello solo which announces the rising of the sun could have had a touch more prominence. The Triton Fountain in Early Morning proved at once brilliant and appropriately muscular in Dutoit’s handling of the score, and TheTrevi Fountain at Noon brought out the full glare of the Roman mid-day sun at the height of summer. Warmth of string tone realised across the crescendo that frames the fountain’s portrait was a notable and pleasing feature, all neatly underlined by the contribution of the Royal Festival Hall’s organ. However, it could be observed that both Respighi and Dutoit were apt to carve the fountain’s features with less care for delicacy and frothy effect than the fountain itself is known for. With the closing of the day at the Villa Medici fountain, the day’s end was closely observed and realised with attention to detail. Through careful choice of an even tempo and shading of individual instrumental contributions such as the French horn line that signals the setting sun, finally Dutoit brought about a sense of repose in the warm stillness of a sultry night.
Dvorák’s Cello Concerto calls for a firm grip on the music’s structure if the music is to achieve anything like a semblance of cohesion, but this nearly eluded Charles Dutoit for more than one reason. Under his direction the opening orchestral statements of the first movement seemed somewhat brusque, even impetuously raspy in some quarters, before settling somewhat uneasily upon the entry of soloist Gautier Capuçon. He brought a nobility to the solo line often enough, aided by his keenly applied vibrato, but on occasions this was on the verge of becoming an over-dominant and self-indulgent feature of Capuçon’s playing. Dutoit propelled the music onwards, not even losing a beat when his baton propelled back into the stalls, from where it was swiftly returned with Capuçon’s assistance. The central movement was coherent in its overall shape, though Capuçon meandered through the solo part and took delight in its inner details. Elegance of orchestral playing marked out the final movement, though Dutoit again lost his baton – this time it landed in a first violinist’s lap – and Capuçon found a veritable lexicon of shadings for the repeats of his solo part, which injected interest into his realisation of the concerto as a whole. Overall, though, this performance was something of a curate’s egg: in parts it satisfied, in others it verged on becoming a sequence of interesting episodes that barely connected. Certainly, it wasn’t the equal of Pablo Casals’ 1937 interpretation with George Szell with which many of us grew up. Coincidentally, Capuçon’s encore was Casals’ own Song of the Birds, with the simplicity of its haunting refrain left to fly across the Royal Festival Hall with the greatest of ease.
The scores to Stravinsky’s great ballets are not the only scores to have become orchestral showpieces in their own right, but they are perhaps the most obvious examples of this transition from orchestral pit to centre stage attraction. Dutoit has an intimate knowledge of the original 1911 version of Petrushka, which has of late been less often performed than the later condensed revision Stravinsky penned. His advocacy of the score might have you think that he visualises it as the score to a widescreen Russian cinematic epic, such was the brightly lit and accentuated approach to which almost every instrumental detail was subjected. Woodwinds verged on the overly harsh; celeste and piano were deeply in the thick of it and relished their parts, the brass proved sonorous and opulently toned for the most part, whilst the string tone for which the Royal Philharmonic is famed provided a firm foundation under Dutoit’s lively yet certain direction that filled out both characterisation and story at every turn. Stravinsky’s music however proved robust, resilient and as fresh as one could want, ensuring the evening ended on a high note.