With combined ages of over 150 years between conductor and soloist, there was no lack of experience on the platform for this Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert. There was no lack of energy either. Charles Dutoit, as dapper as ever, injected Berlioz and Prokofiev with swagger, while Elisabeth Leonskaja, a pianist firmly of the Russian old school, kneaded the keyboard into submission in an occasionally bruising account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

Charles Dutoit © Columbia Artists Management Inc
Charles Dutoit
© Columbia Artists Management Inc

After a rushed introductory flourish, Leonskaja launched Grieg’s playful theme in the opening Allegro molto moderato in slightly stern fashion. In her cadenza, the bass growled angrily. There was plenty of iron fist but little velvet glove in the jaunty finale too. Leonskaja battled heroically, but faster passages suffered from wrong notes or notes skimped altogether. However, she relaxed into pianissimo ripples in the central Adagio, throwing dappled sunlight at the RPO woodwinds, who responded in sympathetic fashion, shepherded patiently by Dutoit. Trills were not always perfectly even, but Leonskaja's element of restraint was admirable.

On his day, Charles Dutoit is probably the best Berlioz conductor in the world, but the RPO took time to kick into gear. After the rambunctious brassy fanfares, suspect woodwind intonation and smudged ensemble marred the opening phrases of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini. The strings didn’t quite shed Mediterranean sunlight either, but the rhythmic pulse was strong, Dutoit driving the middle section along purposefully. Berlioz’s kitchen-sink approach to orchestration often throws up the unusual and here we had three timpanists rattling away merrily to bring everything to an exuberant close.

Prokofiev only asks for a single timpanist in his Fifth Symphony, but makes up for this with a whole battery of percussion employed liberally in several decibel-busting moments. Dutoit gets this music, striking a balance between frenzy and the bittersweet melancholy that sweeps through this score. Composed during the Second World War, Prokofiev wrote that his Fifth was "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit." That happiness is most apparent in the scampering strings of the toccata-like second movement, originally intended for his ballet Romeo and Juliet – you could almost see Mercutio thumbing his nose at the Capulets as the RPO woodwinds cheekily cackled. There’s a huge sense of nostalgia in the third movement, with a yearning motif that strikes me as very similar to Prince Andrei’s phrase in the first scene of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace (written around the same time). After the loss of his first wife, Andrei encounters young Natasha Rostova and resolves that perhaps life isn’t over at the age of 31. As the violins soared ever higher, there was a sense of hope reborn, eventually crushed by the brass and percussion eruption.

After a brief sentimental introduction, Prokofiev suddenly changes tack and launches into the playful finale, led by an insoucient clarinet. Dutoit ensured the strings and percussion motored along busily, directing the traffic with clear hand signals. He steered clearly as the orchestral road became more congested, until Prokofiev suddenly hits the buffers and the symphony just stops. A bracing performance and the clear highlight of an uneven concert.