What an embarrassment of riches were presented to a very enthusiastic audience by the Philharmonia and Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev last night at the Royal Festival Hall. Three high spirited masterpieces with rousing endings almost cancelled each other out, with an exquisite counterbalance opening work, Faure’s Suite from his incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande, to kick off.
First performed as a Suite in 1909, the four movement suite delicately captures the essence of Maeterlinck's much admired play, perhaps more truly than the other heavyweight composers who have taken on the work – namely Schoenberg, Debussy and Sibelius. In this performance the Philharmonia’s pellucid orchestral tone perfectly brought out the beauty of the piece and in the final movement, La mort de Mélisande a depth of string tone added a touching note of tragedy. A particular mention for Samuel Coles, whose numerous flute solos were a joy throughout.
Ravel’s lively Piano Concerto in G major is a world away from his teacher Faure’s more veiled world. In this performance the soloist, Nicholas Angelich, brought out the jazzy colour and delicate emotion of the piece, while never at any point trivialising it. And with the Philharmonia on top form, this was one of the best live performances of the concerto I have heard, bringing to mind Michelangeli’s classic recording. Fiery and dextrous in the fast passages in the outer movements, Angelich wasn’t afraid to bring out an angry edge in the music. In the slow passages of the first movement, he found a balancing sweetness that was perfectly judged. The glory of the performance was the slow movement, with a ‘just right’ tempo that made the movement flow naturally and the many tasteful interpretive moments from Angelich were a delight. The return of the long opening melody on the cor anglais, this time embellished by the pianist, was heart stopping indeed.
After the interval, we were treated to two of the most important orchestral works in the 20th century repertoire. Debussy’s La mer is his orchestral masterpiece. Its concise three movement form raised the bar, not only in terms of its structure but also how he integrates the brilliant use of orchestral colour into the musical argument. All these positives were demonstrated in this performance, with Sokhiev completely in tune with the pulse of the work and the Philharmonia seeming like the ideal orchestra to perform it. The high point here was the noble ending of the first movement, which is notoriously difficult to bring off. The full weight of the burnished brass successfully created the momentary atmosphere of sunlit wonder that Debussy was looking for. The climax at the end of the finale was thrilling and it was hard to imagine anything could or should follow it.
But hard on its heels Stravinsky’s Suite (1919) from his career making ballet The Firebird rounded off the concert. After the electric sophistication of the Debussy the opening minutes of the Suite seemed something of a let-down and it wasn’t until the third section “The Infernal Dance of Kashchei’s Followers” that the performance and the work began to make their impression. The splendid music of the finale is guaranteed to elevate and the Philharmonia and Sokhiev gave it their all. However even this did not erase the memory of the French music that preceded it, which showed conductor and orchestra at their very considerable best.