It’s over twenty years since I last saw Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé danced by the Royal Ballet, yet every step of Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography is imprinted on my memory: Stuart Cassidy a bold Daphnis; Adam Cooper, his rival; Sarah Wildor a charming, delicate Chloé; Irek Mukhamedov the swaggering pirate chief who abducts her. I replayed much of it yesterday evening during the London Symphony Orchestra’s terrific performance which basked in Mediterranean heat. I imagine Alain Altinoglu was also playing through the visuals in his mind, conducting with a mixture of histrionic flourishes and balletic flair.  

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Daphnis plunges us into the intoxicating world of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, with designs by Léon Bakst, it received its première at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1912, conducted by Pierre Monteux, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina dancing the title roles. Based on Fokine’s reworking of an ancient Greek pastoral novel, the scenario deals with the love between Daphnis, a young shepherd, and Chloé, who is abducted by pirates but eventually rescued through the dramatic intervention of Pan. The ballet ends with the lovers’ blissful reunion.

Often, orchestras just serve up Ravel’s second suite in concert – the most celebrated section of the score from the magical sunrise of the third tableau to the heady bacchanale which concludes the ballet. Hearing the full work is greatly preferable, allowing the listener to wallow in Ravel’s opulent orchestration and bold harmonic colouring. After a whispered opening, Altinoglu built the first crescendo, as young girls offer garlands for the nymphs at Pan’s altar, to such ecstatic heights that I feared his performance may have peaked prematurely. However, the dramatic temperature only increased. Swollen trombone glissandos greeted Dorcon’s braggadocious solo, while Bryaxis and his fellow pirates bounded along to testosterone-fuelled brass and percussion. With snake-hip wiggles and exaggerated back bends, Altinoglu relished the drama. He didn’t neglect the more delicate moments of Ravel’s scoring though, from nocturnal sighs from a dusky alto flute to rippling woodwinds that greeted a glittering sunrise over the Aegean. Adam Walker’s Pantomime, where the reunited Daphnis and Chloé mime the tale of Pan and Syrinx, was as refreshing as morning dew. The beautifully blended London Symphony Chorus sighed, moaned and exalted splendidly. A glorious, sun-drenched performance.

The first half was nearly as impressive, if chillier in climate. After some initial disagreement over tempi, Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes settled into its strutting rhythms, Chris Richards’ insouciant clarinet wearing a sly grin. This served as a curtain-raiser for Gautier Capuçon’s account of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. The composer wrote this for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who committed it to memory in four days. Shostakovich’s fingerprints are all over the work, in the form of his musical monogram, the D-S-C-H motif continually distorted and refracted through the concerto. From the very start, Capuçon’s bright, resiny tone projected strongly as the music swung the pendulum from nonchalance to terror. His dapper appearance and unruffled playing belied a performance of great emotional intensity, the one moment of physical drama being a theatrical bow lift at the end of the first movement. The LSO accompanied keenly, from sizzling popcorn pizzicatos to spectral celesta in the second movement’s elegy. In contrast to the histrionic emotions in Shostakovich’s concerto for Rostropovich, Capuçon offered an encore of reflective balm in the form of the Song of the Birds by the 20th century’s other great cellist, Pablo Casals.