The RPO at the Royal Albert Hall during Proms season (photograph by Chris Christodoulou, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) presented the second of the two programs it had prepared for its visit to San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series. Those who attended the first program might be forgiven for wondering whether or not they were listening to the same ensemble with the same conductor on the podium. The appearances were certainly the same, including Thierry Fischer’s lively approach to conducting and any number of familiar faces in the ensemble (with particular attention to “female domination” of the viola section). However, just about every instance of technical skill coupled with expressive rhetoric that shone on Sunday evening was overshadowed by playing that was, at best, overblown and thoroughly detached from the interests of the serious listener.
The result was a program for which the encores provided just about the only source to make the commitment to two hours of listening worth the time. Piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in particular, stood out above all others when he played the third (in D-flat major) piece in Franz Liszt’s Consolations collection (in its second version). Thibaudet probably appreciated the need for an understated suggestion of calm stillness, since he had just finished playing the solo part of Liszt’s second piano concerto in A Major.
Liszt spent considerable time working on this concerto, only finalizing his efforts in 1861. By that time it had been over half a decade since he had completed and published his only piano sonata (in B minor). The sonata was a massive work structured as a single uninterrupted movement with well-demarcated episodes, whose technical difficulty is matched only by the challenge of presenting the listener with something more than a shapeless onslaught of fireworks. Through experience I know that there are a few Liszt experts out there who know how to make sense of the piece. However, I have to wonder if even they can pull off a convincing account of the second concerto.
Once again Liszt worked with an episodic structuring of a single uninterrupted movement. Also again he worked with relatively little thematic material, exploring how it could be presented in a wide variety of guises as the concerto progressed. However, if there was any trace of the cerebral behind the score, it was blown away by the unabashed bombast that Thibaudet brought to his keyboard work, consistently matched with equivalent outbursts that Fischer elicited from the ensemble. If Victor Borge had been the soloist for this concerto, the audience would have been in stitches; but last night’s delivery had all the rhetorical gestures of a “serious” account, an account that quickly devolved into one tedious rant after another.
If Thibaudet redeemed himself with his encore selection, then Fischer came close to doing the same with his own selection at the end of the evening. This was Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España” rhapsody for orchestra. Fischer had just led the RPO through the original 1911 version of the full score for the Michel Fokine’s ballet “Petrushka” composed by Igor Stravinsky. In contrast to “The Firebird” (whose Stravinsky score was performed on Sunday night), whose narrative has all the ingredients of a conventional Russian folk tale, “Petrushka” is about the giddy chaos of Pre-Lenten festivities in the days of tsarist Russia. The narrative about the misfortunes of the puppet after whom the ballet was named are secondary.
I suspect I am not the only one to declare “Petrushka” to be Fokine’s most brilliant piece of choreography. He managed to fill every corner of the stage with its own center of activity. This made Stravinsky the perfect composer, because he could account for each of those centers with its own musical gesture and then, following Fokine’s lead, superpose all of them. This makes the music as difficult to conduct as the choreography is difficult to realize on the stage. Sadly, while Fischer could keep up Stravinsky’s pace, he lacked the ability to bring each of that plethora of activities into its proper light.
This brings us back to “España,” which also churns with an abundance of lively activities. However, Chabrier splices all of those activities one after the other with almost cinematic sequencing. He never tries to throw combinations of them at the listener simultaneously. This seemed to be better suited to Fischer’s wheelhouse, and it was the one moment in the entire evening which high spirits paid off with a rewarding listening experience.
The program opened with Ottorino Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” symphonic poem. The episodes in this piece swing radically between barely uttered subtleties at the beginning and end and brazen assaults of decibels in the middle. Fischer could not have done a better job in handling the delicate moments; but the raucous ones quickly got out of hand, often with no end of coarse sonorities coming primarily from the brass section. At best this was an account that informed the audience about where John Williams got some of his best Star Wars tricks, but it left the serious listener with little more than a desire for ear plugs.