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Cabell, RPO, Dutoit, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Cabell, RPO, Dutoit, Royal Festival Hall

Cabell, RPO, Dutoit, Royal Festival Hall

Finely crafted Ravel and Poulenc from the French-Swiss master conductor

Charles Dutoit: trademark RavelPriska Ketterer

This was the first of three Royal Festival Hall concerts during the first half of 2014 from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor Charles Dutoit, all three programmes consisting entirely of French music. The other two will be in May. In between the Swiss-born conductor, a sprightly 77-year-old, will have picked up a Lifetime Achievement gong at the International Classical Music Awards in Warsaw.

The relationship between the RPO and Dutoit seems to work well, not least because the repertoire he is working with them on is abolutely his home territory. These were the works which, as a student, he had witnessed Ernest Ansermet conducting. They are what established Dutoit's reputation in his key years as principal conductor in Montreal, admittedly a far more hands-on role than that which he has at the RPO. And among the recorded achievements of his Montreal years, there is none finer than his sonically spectacular and finely-crafted 1980 Decca recording of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë.

Nicole Cabell by Devon CassDutoit's Daphnis unfolds in a careful, organic way. It has purpose and direction. The ebb and flow is controlled. If the piece can present problems of balance between sections, or between the wordless choir and the orchestra, to my ears these all appeared resolved. Instruments which might get submerged, like the alto flute with its big moment in the second tableau, sounded crisp and clear. The huge, very solistic principal flute part was taken very convincingly indeed by Karen Jones. But in general the RPO with Dutoit at the helm work at doing justice to the music as an ensemble, rather than making their individual mark as soloists.

The orchestra has a horn section of quiet craftsmen, a wonderfully led and unanimous bass section. This was an ordered, honest, totally musical performance. Rather than letting it make an edge-of-the-seat London sound, Dutoit, paradoxically has the RPO – which probably has more Brits in it than the other London orchestras – as well-rehearsed and groomed as a continental orchestra. I suspect this quality, the joyous sounds, those inescapable Ravel ear-worms, will all come across very well in the radio broadcast.

The first half of the concert was Poulenc's 1961 Gloria, commissioned by Koussevitzky for Boston in 1961, with Chicago-born soprano Nicole Cabell (pictured above by Devon Cass) as soloist. There is no disguising the fact that there are parts of this work which simply chug along mechanically. As the Gloria progresses, there are some enchanting explorations of of bitonality and polytonality, which Dutoit elicited superbly from the orchestra; Cabell brought the right kind of soulfulness and crystalline high notes to the closing stages of the piece,  but it is not a work for which I can ever imagine summoning up much affection.

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