A Franco-Iberian axis defined this concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra showcasing the strengths of its Principal Conductor, Charles Dutoit. It is astonishing to note that during the lifetime of that great French man of letters, Anatole France, a veritable pantheon of Gallic composers – among them Bizet, Chausson, Debussy, Dukas, Duparc, Fauré, Franck and Ravel – were making their mark on the world stage. So his hard-boiled judgement about his homeland, “Great in all the arts, supreme in none”, was somewhat unkind, given that Paris was quite capable of challenging Vienna for musical pre-eminence.

Charles Dutoit, Joshua Bell and the RPO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There’s nothing better to kick off a summer concert than a sense of Spanish fiesta. The gypsy influences with the oriental colour of the cante jondo and guitar-like cadences of flamenco yielded some of the most exotic-sounding nationalist music in Europe, of which Falla’s one-act ballet El amor brujo is a notable example. Dutoit has few rivals when it comes to refinement of orchestral colour, and the spookiness of the introduction was well realised in the rumble of lower strings and growling of the heavy brass. The salty tang of the trumpets throughout, the snake-charming qualities of the oboe in the “Ritual Fire Dance” and the silkiness of the upper strings in their many passages of hushed lyricism were examples of the impressionistic colour Dutoit found in the score. Unfortunately, when the bells of dawn began to peal at the very end, the tubular bells were almost inaudible. What was certainly in short supply in this reading was Spanish temperament: for all the sultriness that was on offer, the heat haze robbed some of the rhythms of sharper definition. This also affected the mezzo soloist, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Poulenc’s great-grand-niece, whose voice was occasionally under-projected, particularly in the penultimate section. One of the key lines, “¿Soy er fuego en que te abrasas!” (= “I am the fire in which you burn!”), was delivered with a worrying absence of passion.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Charles Dutoit and the RPO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Which could not be said of Joshua Bell’s performance of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, inspired by and written for the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sarasate. One of the most remarkable features of Bell’s playing was his ability to narrate, with all the inflections of a natural storyteller, keen to take the listener on the equivalent of a magical mystery tour, and point up the musical topography while shifting seamlessly from one Spanish dance rhythm to the next. In each of the five movements (why the central Intermezzo was routinely left out until more modern times is entirely baffling, given its innate Spanish qualities) his playing was warm and wonderfully expressive, giving full idiomatic weight to the habanera in the opening and concluding movements, and both the malagueña and seguidilla in the second, where the rhythms were kept quite taut, the coils of intense energy then gradually released by both soloist and conductor. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a more sympathetic accompaniment than that provided by Dutoit and the RPO. The close of the Intermezzo, with its languorous melodic lines dying away like a rich rosy sunset, was especially finely wrought, as was the whole of the fourth movement. How appropriate that Bell’s encore, in response to the deserved ovation, was the Méditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs.

Before the main work in the second half, the Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society, John Gilhooly, presented Charles Dutoit with the society’s Gold Medal. He now becomes the 103rd recipient, joining many other illustrious names including Brahms, Boulez and Barbirolli (to quote only from the Bs).

Charles Dutoit is presented with his Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal by John Gilhooly
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was also entirely fitting that the concert concluded with a work that was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society and first performed in 1886. If ever a piece was made for the Royal Albert Hall, it must be Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony. This was an expansive reading, but which never once lost its step or failed to entrance the ear. The atmospheric opening was already charged with a sense of forward momentum, aided by chattering woodwinds and rollicking strings, while the lower brass provided a dark and dramatic counterpoint.

Underlying the four interlinked movements was an elasticity in the pulse that led to a seamlessness in the playing – you were never once conscious of any bar-lines – but which also permitted individual solo voices to emerge from the rich tapestry of textures, into which the organ too was beautifully integrated. The RPO responded to Dutoit’s direction with gloriously committed playing and, even in the coda, where the ripples of sound went on echoing around the vast interior spaces, there was an astonishing translucency of articulation. This Organ Symphony just glittered and glowed from start to finish.

After the previous night’s French extravaganza, here was yet another embarras de richesses, with an orchestra at the top of its form and a superlative interpreter on the rostrum.