Classical music takes itself seriously. This preference for solemnity and earnestness, which has even led to the term ‘Serious Music’ being used to denote the genre, stems predominantly from 19th century music critics considering the art form to be of the highest aesthetic value: a transcendental spiritual realm, a means of connection between the Genius of the Composer and the Divine Being – and not to be trifled with. Of course, some music does feel this way; however, that’s no reason to denigrate music that has no such grave, noble intentions or effects: music like that which Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought to the Proms from the Eternal City. Respighi’s vivid triptych of symphonic Roman imaginings, the Pines and Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals, was complemented by Berlioz’s Le carnaval romain, to create a programme that fanfared fun and festivities. Walton’s Sinfonia concertante added an element of English introspection, but this didn’t prevent this concert from not taking itself too seriously at all: and so much the better.

Charles Dutoit © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee

Berlioz’s overture, parts of which began life in his operatic flop Benvenuto Cellini, got the party started. A short, eccentric piece, it was infused with brightness and sprightliness from the curtain rise. The RPO’s strings sounded particularly rich in the sweeping orchestral passages preceding a fluttering flute and percussion passage which launched the carnival atmosphere with gusto.

The atmosphere shifted for Walton’s Sinfonia concertante, as did the music’s geographic orientation. Its harmonies are of that strikingly English sort, and each of the three contrasting movements is dedicated to one of the Sitwell siblings, institutions in the artistic and intellectual circles in post-War London. Osbert’s Maestoso was restless and anxious, melodic material either being refracted through unsettled, unconventional harmony or pared down to a repeated motive shared out across the orchestra. Edith’s Andante was more measured and introverted, with a sense of the English pastorale to it. The RPO made a lovely, descriptive sound, doing justice to the greyscale subtleties of the movement, which would contrast so strongly with Respighi’s Technicolor brilliance. Sacheverell’s boisterous, ever-so-slightly menacing Allegro concluded the work, the orchestra feeling a little loose in the middle section. Pianist Danny Driver took the soloist's position at the front of the stage, but was relatively unspectacular: justifiably so, considering this is not a piano concerto, but does require some highly accomplished playing nonetheless.

Unlike the programme notes to Respighi’s sensational trilogy, which predominantly seemed to apologise for the composer’s richly programmatic, cinematic, and at times frankly cheeky style, the RPO were unashamed of the exuberance with which they attacked Roman Festivals. The last of the trio to be written, and the least subtle, Dutoit placed it at the start of proceedings not only because its first movement, “Circuses”, offers some spectacular opening fireworks, but so that the concert could end on the overwhelming triumphal march of the “Pines of the Appian Way”. The link between these two movements was obvious: echoing trumpet calls abound, and the sheer colour and scale of the sound Respighi generates in both is almost migrane-inducing.

Nevertheless, despite this satisfying framing device, playing the three sets in this order was problematic. While both the start (all four movements in Roman Festivals) and the end (the last two of the Pines) were played with the exactly the kind of surging but controlled energy that they require, the level dipped considerably in between. This wasn’t helped by Dutoit’s insistence on linking the three works by not acknowledging the applause offered at the end of both Festivals and Fountains; a more prolonged, distinct break would have reset the minds of the performers, and focused them on the new (and very different) set of vivid symphonic evocations to come.

The placid, delicate movements of the Fountains were the most affected by this programming and the drop in orchestral energy; the players found little of the magical or mystical in Respighi’s extraordinary representations of “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn”, with its murmuring freshness, or “The Fountain of the Villa Medici at sunset”, with its mournful yet peaceful knolling bell over shifting harmonies. The manic opening to Pines was equally disappointing in its lack of fizz, and the lugubrious “Pines near a catacomb” lacked conviction, despite a beautiful offstage trumpet solo. However, the “Pines of the Janiculum” was much better; Dutoit finally allowed some of the indulgence that was previously absent, and achieved a perfect balance in the shimmering colour haze of dusk. Tim Lines did justice to what is for me one of the most beautiful clarinet solos in the repertory. After this jewel, back came the trumpets, heralding the Roman legion’s arrival along the Appian Way, and back came the orchestra’s vibrant energy, which made for a blistering end to a seriously fun concert.