While Scotland seems to have avoided the steady stream of complete Mahler cycles that a sizeable proportion of English orchestras have been embarking on in recent years, we do seem to have had our share of Symphonie Fantastiques. Indeed, by October, all three of Scotland's main orchestras will have taken their turn under the baton of their present chief conductor (see here for the RSNO and BBCSSO reviews, SCO still to come). Still, I love a good Symphonie Fantastique and so was keen to hear it under Charles Dutoit's baton. He has recorded it at least twice (with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and the Philharmonia) and both are pretty good, if not my absolute favourites.
His Philadelphia performance certainly had its moments, principally the final two movements: The March to the Scaffold and The Dance of the Witches Sabbath. These were electrifying and filled with about as much drama as one could ask for. The orchestra played superbly for him too, indeed throughout the symphony their playing was their finest of the evening. The string sound was especially good, but there were also a lot of nice wind solos and some solid brass and percussion action - all key in this work. He placed his offstage bells for good effect (as indeed the offstage oboe in the third movement). However, his interpretation was less secure elsewhere. In the slowly paced introduction he didn't have quite the momentum needed. Then in the second movement's ball things were too hard driven. While this was fine towards the end as, to quote Berlioz's own programme note "the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion," it was less so at the beginning where the music was not given enough room to breath and dance. In the end it was thrilling but overall not as satisfying as some; by the drug fuelled visions of the finale it didn't feel we'd taken a long enough journey to get there. On a side note, observing the generous orchestration, including two harps, three trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, four bassoons, and so on, one can't help but wonder how good a fit this is for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to open their season.
For my money, the Symphonie Fantastique is not a work you should follow with an encore, though they played Sibelius's Valse Triste well enough. They then followed it with a pretty exciting reading of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila overture. Again well played, but the trouble for me was that it didn't come close to the excitement of the Dance of the Witches Sabbath, which would have made a far better conclusion.
Dutoit had chosen to open the programme with another piece of Sibelius, Finlandia. This fell rather flat for me, lacking drama and bite. It didn't help that at certain key points the wonderful low string themes were not sufficiently prominent (though in fairness to Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra, we were sitting far round to the right with the cellos pointing almost directly away from us which can't have helped the balance). It also doesn't help that even three years later I still have Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra's superb festival performance ringing in my ears.
Between this and the Berlioz we were due to have Tchaikovsky's violin concerto from Janine Jansen, but alas she cancelled (this is the second time she's cancelled an Usher Hall gig in the last twelve months). In her place came not only a change of soloists, but also a change of work and indeed composer with Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Liszt's 2nd piano concerto. It's not a work I know well, indeed I think my first hearing may have been Benjamin Grosvenor's Proms performance earlier this year and that it may have spoilt me as in comparison this fell a little flat. It was well enough played, by both the orchestra (including some fine cello solos from Hai-Ye Ni) and Thibaudet, yet he failed to beguile in the way Grosvenor did. Still, it must be noted that he was a late stand-in so perhaps direct comparison in this manner is a little unfair. Less forgivable was the Festival's programme inset which contained not a word of detail about the piece save its name. Given that the cancellation e-mail came out more than 24 hours before the performance, surely they could have done better than this. Certainly other venues in similar situations have done so, in my experience. If not, I don't feel you can justify charging full price for the programme.
As an encore, Thibaudet played a Chopin waltz which lacked poetry and didn't really dance.