The Philadelphia Orchestra was at Carnegie Hall this weekend, led by Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit and joined by pianist Maria João Pires, to perform works by Glinka, Chopin, and Ravel. After this season, American audiences will presumably be seeing less of Mr. Dutoit on this side of the Pond – his term in Philadelphia will be over, and he will continue in his position as Artistic Director of the Royal Philharmonic. It was indeed an evening to savor, with two gems of early Romanticism paired with Ravel’s score to the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, performed in its entirety and featuring the Philadelphia Singers Chorale.

Mr. Dutoit and Ms. Pires were of a similar mind in their free-spirited approach to making music this evening. (Mr. Dutoit made a series of iconic recordings with perhaps the most capricious of pianists, Martha Argerich, to whom he was once married.) Each piece was read with verve and warmth, brought to life by the wonderful musicians of the orchestra and choir.

Mikhail Glinka’s comic opera Ruslan and Ludmilla (1837-42), based on Pushkin’s work of the same title, was his second work in the genre, following the hugely successful A Life for the Tsar. Its concise overture is a showpiece for the orchestra, featuring darting passagework for unison strings and tricky off-beat interjections by the winds. Even more than its subtle Russian nationalistic touches, it is the bubbling energy of Glinka’s writing that defines the overture, which sounds like perhaps a quirkier Mendelssohn. The orchestra was as implacable in their execution as in their apparent sense of fun. Mr. Dutoit seemed to be enjoying himself, too, giving the final cutoff mid-stride as he exited the podium.

The piano having been wheeled into place before the start of the concert, the musicians lost little momentum in transitioning into Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2. Indeed, Ms. Pires as well seemed energized, and sounded buoyant in her interpretation. Ascending phrases were launched from the bottom up with a burst of speed, and then floated at the top, right where Chopin shines on the music a diffuse light and allows it to breathe. Ms. Pires keenly sensed what was most important and let nothing deter her from enjoying those moments, while everything else was propelled forward, Chopin’s inimitably idiomatic passagework rendered with masterful pedal effects. I would have liked to (literally) hear more of this, however; she was frequently overpowered by her accompanists, despite Mr. Dutoit’s sensitivity to balance. The piano on which she played had a gorgeous tone and range of colors, but wasn’t quite bright enough in all registers to allow her intimate sound to pierce the orchestra.

The second half brought more imperious artistry, from the performers and the composer himself. Daphnis et Chloé contains some of Ravel’s most raw, daring music. This is not to say it is unpolished – it is among his most enduring masterpieces – but rather that its greatness derives from Ravel’s departure from his comfort zone. This work, more than any other, dispels the “Swiss clockmaker” myth of Ravel as the ultimate craftsman of beautiful, emotionally distant curiosities. The mischief, warmth, and brutality of the piece were brought to the fore by Mr. Dutoit. He chose organic gestures, instead of the generic sort of Ravel playing that too frequently walks on eggshells and dehumanizes the music. The suffocating clarity and detail of a conductor like Pierre Boulez (however brilliant in his own regard) were here eschewed in favor of more “macro” musical ideas, resulting in a truly speech-like sense of phrasing and intense drama. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, normally directed by David Hayes, was brilliantly utilized by Mr. Dutoit. It was staggering how much could be said when, in fact, nothing was said at all; Ravel scored the entire choir part without words, either on vowels or, in a couple of instances, closed-mouth humming. The huge orchestra and choir behind it exploited a seemingly impossible range of dynamics – from the work’s barely perceptible opening to passages near the end that were almost unbearably loud – all in the service of the musical message.

Mr. Dutoit was unwilling to make any musical compromises this evening, and his enthusiasm was greeted with a tumultuous reception. A footnote to the printed program states that any encores will be identified on Carnegie Hall’s Twitter feed, but despite extremely lengthy curtain calls, neither soloist nor orchestra was to offer one. Nevertheless, it was clear this near-capacity crowd was grateful to have Mr. Dutoit and his musicians in town.

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