Following the Philadelphia Orchestra’s stellar performance at last night’s Prom, Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit presented a second violinist with a bouquet of flowers. This unusual gesture, he explained, was a fond farewell to a man who has played in the orchestra for 50 years. During the past half-century, that violinist must have played last night’s pieces many times. Sibelius’ Finlandia, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances are old friends to orchestra and audience alike: everyone has a favourite recording of these works. Surprisingly, this is not the easiest way to ensure that Prom 72 is remembered as one of the big successes of the season; Dutoit and the orchestra would have to find a way to make these tired pieces sound fresh again.

Janine Jansen © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Janine Jansen
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

What a relief then, as from the opening of Finlandia it became clear that Dutoit would not make the mistake of trying to flog new life into old warhorses with an unjustifiably quirky reading. Nor was the performance lacklustre: the seasoned conductor used the excellence of his orchestra to make the piece shine, from the perfect intonation of the opening trombone snarls to the expressive beauty of the woodwind soloists. The orchestra’s cohesive sound and flawless ensemble demonstrated the very best aspects of a well-rehearsed partnership.

Talking of experienced violinists, it was clear from soloist Janine Jansen’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s demanding Violin Concerto that the Dutch performer is already an old pro. To pull off this virtuosic piece is one thing; to pull it off in the stadium acoustic of the Albert Hall is another. Jansen’s warm piano tone never failed to capture the attention of her audience, aided by the Philadelphia’s sensitively light approach to Tchaikovsky’s thick harmonies. A breathtaking cadenza cemented the impression of stunning technique; however Jansen used the exotic-sounding slow movement to disprove the old theory that a performer can have superlative technique or exceptional musicianship but never both, producing a flawless reading that never grew dull. Playing to her technical skills, Jansen and Dutoit launched into a brisk finale which was unusual in its crystal clear articulation. Despite her obvious fatigue, Jansen returned with an encore of the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita no.2 in D Minor which demonstrated her willingness to break performance conventions through the addition of her own ornaments.

In addition to being a concert favourite, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances have a long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, who premiered the work in 1940 (just 21 years before our friend in the second violins joined the band!). The three Dances, which represent Midday, Twilight and Midnight respectively, share a luxurious, almost hedonistic atmosphere at which the Philadelphia’s string section excels. Dutoit’s tempi were superb throughout, the first dance achieving the poise that gives it drama while the haunting Waltz, with its spectres of pre-war Vienna, was demonic in its slithering speed. The brisk tempi showed off the orchestra’s superb players to perfection; however Dutoit’s decision to run the three very separate Dances into one another resulted in the third losing impact.

Ravel’s La Valse also lacked impact. A strange addition to a programme that was well-balanced and already perfectly long enough, the piece was famously turned down by the ballet impresario Diaghilev as it is not so much music for ballet as a musical painting of the dance. The portrait contains both Impressionist and Expressionist music, wispy suggestions of Imperial glamour contrasted against the decline of the waltz in a Vienna forever changed by war. Both aspects were clearly portrayed by Dutoit and the orchestra; however the result was one troubled waltz too many. A charming rendition of Berlioz’s Hungarian March from the Damnation of Faust restored our good spirits, as did the obvious sincerity and good humour of this excellent orchestra as they cheered their longest-standing colleague.