Dutoit, Royal Philharmonic, show impressive fire and fair
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s North American tour stopped in Chicago Sunday afternoon, the venerable English ensemble drawing a respectable and quite appreciative audience at Symphony Center. With Charles Dutoit, music director since 2009, leading the proceedings, one expected a firm degree of discipline and control and largely got it.
Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta made a worthy calling card for the London-based orchestra. The strings are highly impressive if unable to match the current refined corporate bloom of the Chicago Symphony, but the RPO offers muscular brass and first-class woodwinds. This was a taut, pungent reading, distinguished by Michael Whight’s febrile and evocative clarinet solos. The rhythmic intricacies and sharp contrasts in mood and tempi were dexterously handled by Dutoit and the musicians delivered the music with fleet bravura, the no-nonsense Swiss conductor keeping a tight rein on the proceedings.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 may not have been the most imaginative choice as the main work on the program but the strong and impassioned performance led by Dutoit succeeded in blowing the dust off of this thrice-familiar warhorse. The darkly atmospheric clarinets set the tone in the lugubrious introduction and Dutoit directed a thrustful, smartly paced account of the ensuing Allegro. Laurence Davies lofted a beautifully rounded horn solo in the Andante.
Following a rather brisk account of the Waltz, Dutoit led attacca into the final movement and whipped up considerable excitement and propulsion leading to a notably brassy and triumphant coda. While the Royal Philharmonic played well across sections, again it was the outstanding personality-plus contributions of the woodwinds that shone most prominently.
The just-passed Liszt bicentennial year was represented with the program’s centerpiece, the Hungarian composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist.
While not quite as awe-inspiringly crass as its predecessor, the Second Concerto still is imbued with Liszt’s glitzy pyrotechnics, ham-fisted orchestration and banal themes. Thibaudet and Dutoit tamped down the unhealthy vulgarity as much as possible, and the French pianist’s blend of tonal elegance and steel-fingered bravura provided superb advocacy for this rather vacuous showpiece.