Concert programmes at the Proms often lean toward music of significant scale and heft. The requirement to fill the huge Royal Albert Hall, as well as capturing listeners’ attentions across the airwaves and in many different countries, means that huge expeditions, such as this year’s Ring cycle, are a perfect fit for the festival. Prom 44 was massive too, in its own way. Massive queues for the prommers, clearly taken with the programme of Stravinsky, Penderecki, Debussy and Ravel, preceded a concert of great depth. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Charles Dutoit, gave an astute reading of the material, filling the auditorium only when strictly necessary.
Stravinsky’s Fireworks is a great piece of busy writing. It moves from one idea to the next – usually switching departments in the process – with astounding speed, even for Stravinsky. It was the young Stravinsky’s ability to produce dense work of this nature that caught Diaghilev’s eye, resulting in one of the great artistic partnerships of their age. Sadly, the Royal Philharmonic didn’t quite bring out the explosive character of the piece. The rendition was, of course, expertly together, and it was fully dynamic within a certain range. It was a shame, however, that that range was itself limited.
In contrast, Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso is far more limited in terms of its quantity of thematic material (at least in comparison to its run-time), and yet the Royal Philharmonic and three excellent cello soloists made the highly repetitive piece totally riveting. Arto Noras, Leonard Elschenbroich and Daniel Müller-Schott were the trio of soloists, who thanks to sensitive orchestration and determinedly fortissimo playing were able to soar above their accompaniment and deliver the Baroque-inflected melodies and their variants with brilliant clarity. The balance between the cellos and the orchestral accompaniment was strikingly good. It allowed for the development of motifs as a whole ensemble and when the accompaniment fell away, the cellos indulged in some emotionally wrought melodies both in harmony and at odds with one another. The piece worked so well in terms of composition and performance, that I am left wondering why the Concerto Grosso form is so underused.
As a muse, the sea is by no means underused in the arts. The list of compositions, poems, novels and paintings which derive provenance from the oceans is long and includes many great works. Debussy’s La Mer is a well-known example. Much of these symphonic sketches is atmospheric, conjuring the feelings of the sea with crashing waves and and reflected light (cymbals and harps respectively), and finally a dialogue between the sea and the wind. But Charles Dutoit, known for his interpretation of French works, brought out the individual, novel elements of the music. For instance, he held conspicuous unison triads mid-way through in a most theatrical manner, and indulged those moments that were most clearly influenced by far-Eastern harmony.
Thick added-note harmonies were even more apparent in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé suite no. 2, which followed, although the orchestration was by this point on another plane altogether. Ravel’s orchestration must be a dream for talented conductors: it licenses them to tinker with the full kaleidoscope of timbres, and in this piece almost every new entry is critical to an overall swell of sound. Ravel builds up the first sunrise from the bottom of the double bass to the top of the violins. This journey is short in length but huge in terms of depth, and it is ornamented with naturalistic birdsong from the flutes, which I have never heard played with more skill. Indeed, Dutoit went on to allow flute solos the self-determination they deserve, only insisting on his tempo again when the ordered pizzicato of the strings heralded that famously voluminous ending.
This music at this Prom was performed with exquisite detail and organisation. Charles Dutoit seemed to have worked with the orchestra a great deal on emphasizing the little ornaments, dynamic tricks and harmonic twists that appeared throughout the concert. But what stood out was the depth of atmosphere and the thickness of the sound. This is what gave the music its scale, and what made the evening such a success. It may not have been a winning approach in the Stravinsky, but for the overwhelming majority of the concert it was just right.