Arts & Events

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Excels in Stravinsky’s THE FIREBIRD

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday February 03, 2018 - 08:30:00 PM

It takes some doing to overshadow French cellist Gautier Capuçon, who is perhaps our finest young cellist today. But that is exactly what occurred on Sunday evening, January 28, at Davies Hall when London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed before intermission with Gautier Capuçon as soloist in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, then returned to the stage to offer a scintillating rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu/The Firebird. Let me be clear, however. There was absolutely no lack of artistry in the chemistry between cellist Gautier Capuçon and conductor Thierry Fischer in the Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1. Quite the contrary, what was outstanding in this performance was the attention to detail, and especially to dynamics, as both soloist and orchestra beautifully rendered the delicacy of this excellent work by Joseph Haydn.  

Having heard Gautier Capuçon several times before, most memorably as soloist in Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, I had always appreciated Capuçon’s robust tone, his physicality, and his assertive attack. Well, this time around, Capuçon brought out his sensitive, delicate side, as he played many passages softly yet with crystalline clarity. In this he was aided by conductor Thierry Fischer, who wisely had the orchestra accompany Capuçon’s pianissimo passages toward the end of the first movement with only the faintest, hushed strings performing repeated three-note phrases. Of course, with Gautier Capuçon, one always encounters quite a bit of sheer power, and this was evident in the difficult cadenza he performed in the opening movement. Yet here too there were moments of gossamer filigree played ever so softly. This was music by Papa Haydn performed with exquisite sensitivity by a great artist. The second movement, an Adagio, was a rapturous thing of beauty. In this movement only the strings are heard, the oboes and horns remaining silent. Here Gautier Capuçon brought out the full, burnished tone of his cello as he made it sing this Adagio’s lustrous melody. And for a change of pace, what could be better than the rapid-fire excitement of Haydn’s finale, also beautifully performed by Capuçon and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Thierry Fischer! (Currently Music Director of Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer was a late replacement for Charles Dutoit, with whom the San Francisco Symphony recently severed all ties in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment by Dutoit. For Thierry Fischer, this was his first appearance under the auspices of San Francisco Symphony, and it was an auspicious one.) 

The Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1 was preceded on the program by Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite, a group of four songs, two of which are set to poems by Paul Verlaine. Debussy originally published the Petite Suite in 1889 as a work for piano four-hands, but in 1906 he made transcriptions for solo piano and for violin and piano. Then, in 1907 Henri Büsser proposed to create an adaptation of Debussy’s Petite Suite for chamber orchestra. Debussy was delighted with Büsser’s adaptation, and he subsequently conducted this version in many concerts. It is this version we heard played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  

The second half of the program was given over to Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which premiered in 1910 at the Opéra in Paris with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Like Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Kashchey, the Immortal, which I reviewed last week, Stravinsky’s The Firebird is based on Russian folk tales dealing with conflict between young Prince Ivan Tsarevich and the superannuated sorcerer Kashchey, who is evil incarnate. The Firebird, discovered by Ivan in the magic garden of King Kashchey, is a benevolent fairy. The Firebird’s magic is a powerful antidote to the evil magic of the sorcerer Kashchey, and her lullaby puts the malevolent sorcerer into a deep sleep. She then reveals the secret of Kashchey’s immortality – his soul is kept in a giant egg, buried in a casket. She leads Ivan to the casket, and Ivan smashes the egg, killing Kashchey and causing Kashchey’s castle and entourage to disappear in darkness. Good has triumphed over evil, and the world rejoices. Stravinsky’s score is full of unusual harmonic effects and vivid orchestral coloration.  

The flute is prominent in many of the early sections of The Firebird, and flute solos were admirably rendered by Royal Philharmonic’s principal flutist Emer McDonough. The section entitled Supplication of the Firebird offers richly scored music with an importuning melody that begins in the oboe, English horn, and viola. Later, when Kashchey unleashes his guardian monsters, the music turns violent and fantastic. A Lullaby sung by The Firebird offers a lovely bassoon solo, exquisitely played here by Royal Philharmonic’s principal bassoonist Emily Hultmark, is accompanied by ethereal harmonies in the strings, flute, and harp. This Lullaby was for me the highlight of the entire work. Immediately following the Lullaby comes Kashchey’s death, signified by a loud orchestral crash. The celebratory final section opens with a solo horn melody of childlike wonder as good triumphs over evil, and the theme builds to a grand apotheosis as the curtain falls.  

Conductor Thierry Fischer fairly threw himself into this music, energetically leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra throughout each and every section of this highly original work. One can understand why Claude Debussy, who was present at the premiere of The Firebird in Paris, was so enthusiastic about Stravinsky’s unusual harmonic effects and orchestral coloration that he went backstage to congratulate Stravinsky and invite him to dinner.