With a schedule weighted towards the lighter side of the classical repertoire and an itinerary that takes in a large number of regional concert halls, it’s easy to overlook the contribution of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to London’s musical life. Given the right programme, however, and a conductor fully inside the music, the orchestra can hold its own with any of its metropolitan rivals, as this concert compellingly demonstrated.
The four pieces featured in the programme all involved French composers incorporating musical styles from other countries. Opening the concert was Chabrier’s España, a piece written following an extended tour the composer made of Spain in 1882. Charles Dutoit, the orchestra’s Principal Conductor, and a specialist in this repertoire, delivered a vigorous performance with pin sharp ensemble throughout, a splendid overture to the rest of the concert.
Of the large corpus of works written by Saint-Saëns, only a few are regularly played in concert. The Fifth Piano Concerto, also known as ‘The Egyptian’, is a melodic and distinctive work that deserves to be heard more often. The second movement in particular, which according to Saint-Saëns quotes a Nubian love song heard on the Nile, features an attractive sense of Orientalism and some highly imaginative writing for the piano. Pianist Stephen Hough, who has long been a champion of the concerto, delivered a virtuosic and well characterised interpretation, alive to the concerto’s varied moods and styles. His delivery of the faster passagework in the outer movements was exhilarating and, matched with Dutoit’s energetic accompaniment, helped bring the concerto to a rousing conclusion.
Of Debussy’s three Images for orchestra, the Spanish themed second piece, Iberia, is often performed as a stand-alone work. All credit therefore to Dutoit therefore for programming all three pieces in this concert, allowing the opening Gigues (which makes use of a British folksong) and the concluding Rondes de printempts (which uses two French folksongs) to be heard as part of a contrasting triptych. Dutoit’s interpretation, ideally paced throughout, demonstrated finely judged control of dynamics, balance and tone colour. Solo contributions from the likes of trumpet, viola, oboe and clarinet were uniformly excellent. There were times when the central movement of Ibéria, Les parfums de la nuit, might have benefited from a slightly greater sense of fluidity and rapture, but there was no wanting of energy in the following Le matin d’un jour de fete, nor of the commitment of the performance as a whole.
The final item on the programme was Ravel’s La valse, a work written in the aftermath of World War One taking the Viennese waltz as its starting point and stretching it to breaking. Dutoit’s interpretation was imbued with a sense of menace, and climaxes were delivered with an imposing darkness and heft. It was an outstanding conclusion to a memorable concert.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.