In his conducting career spanning over half a century, Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit has championed the early 20th century Franco-Russian music. During his quarter-century reign at L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, his recording and performances of the repertoire greatly amplified the reputation of the orchestra, even though his sudden departure in 2002 may have also cemented his legacy as the last of the autocratic conductors.
Revisiting this terrain with the San Francisco Symphony and pianist Nikolai Lugansky, Dutoit took the audience through a tour of the richness and subtlety of the period. The conductor’s deep connection with the material was communicated to the orchestra, which responded with nuanced performances.
Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye opened the evening evocatively, with unusually pure tone from the strings, uncontaminated by vibrato, spinning a fine silky thread, which was then woven into the scenes for the ballet for which the original piano duet piece was orchestrated. Ravel’s meticulous orchestration, resonant yet deceptively simple and spare, was rendered with the care and attention to details it deserves. In the nearly minimalist “Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant,” (Sleeping Beauty pavane) the lyrical line of the wind section was exquisitely balanced with the pizzicato consonant of the violins. The contrabassoon beast theme in “Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête” (Conversation of Beauty and the Beast) was rich in overtones, revealing the gentleness within the grotesque exterior, and “Le Jardin Féerique” (The fairy garden) breathed and heaved, as if alive, from Dutoit’s absolute insistence on careful and deliberate phrasing.
Unfortunately, the shrieks in “Le Petit Poucet” (Tom Thumb) and the high lyrical line in “Le Jardin Féerique” were marred by careless intonation and incorrect rhythm by the violin soloist in an otherwise exquisite performance.
Then, we came to Rachmaninoff’s popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Among all the variations composed by composers from Brahms to Andrew Lloyd Webber, this work alone requires no introduction. The piece showcases the bravura and virtuosity of the pianist and few can equal the complete package that Lugansky offers.
Those gathered in anticipation of the pyrotechnics were not disappointed. Humorous, dissonant chords were delivered in slaps and punches. Lugansky’s broad phrasing, rich with contrasting colors, added much space. Finger-twisting variation 15 was delivered extravagantly, though some of the inner voices in variation 17 were buried and sounded too much like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The unapologetically romantic variation 18 was initially elegantly restrained but then became massively extravagant, pulling out all the stops. It was 20th-century, cinematic romanticism at its finest.
The performance of Gabriel Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande mirrored the Ravel. While it was not composed or arranged as ballet music, extracts were later adopted by George Balanchine for the “Emeralds” section of his 1967 Jewels. The heart-tugging Prélude involved layers of dynamic levels, with deliberate phrasing unfolding swelling emotions to set the atmosphere of the tragedy. From the spinning wheel in “La Fileuse” (Spinning song) to the exquisite moment of happiness in Sicilienne, Dutoit presented a carefully constructed narrative, then breaking hearts in the devastating “Mort de Mélisande.”
Strinvinsky’s Firebird Suite concluded the evening triumphantly in a raucous reading with particularly explosive percussions in the Infernal Dance and the Finale. The syncopations in the dance were poignant, amplifying the tension and energy. There was a magical moment in the transition from the Lullaby to the Finale, not only because of the horn solo, but also from the rustling of the orchestra turning pages and removing the mutes, giving a sensation of awakening. The audience seemed to respond as well. It was one of those moments where the unexpected actually enhances the experience, and it was immensely satisfying to experience a moment that could never be captured in a recording.