PROM 6, 19 July 2011: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung/Renaud & Gautier Capuçon, Royal Albert Hall
That whooshing sound isn’t just the manic tam-tam of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It’s also the fresh air that swept into town with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the first overseas orchestra to visit this year’s Proms. Its long-time principal conductor Myung-Whun Chung took the helm for a second consecutive evening in the limelight.
Opening with the Overture to Weber’s opera Oberon, an early romantic gem, Chung placed the emphasis firmly on ‘romantic’ rather than ‘early’. Plaudits go to the elegant solo horn, arching the notes of his call with Matisse-like deftness. After latecomers had scuttled in (amazing there aren’t even more, given the hall’s cumbersome security), the celebrated Capuçon brothers arrived to offer their party piece, Brahms’s Double Concerto for violin and cello.
Siblings, yes; but they remain very different musical personalities. Renaud, 35, is a persuasive and assured violinist at the very top of his game; the cellist Gautier, 29, sometimes sounded less secure, with erratic vibrato and occasional moments of forced tone, yet maybe he’s the one who takes more musical risks. But in their shared episodes, their playing was so unified that they seemed positively telepathic. Chung, himself from a distinguished musical family (his sister is the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung), cushioned them in orchestral luxury more indulgent than is now broadly fashionable in Brahms, creating textures into which you could really sink your teeth. As an encore, the brothers whirled into the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, the perfect duo showstopper. If anyone wasn’t yet seduced, their quirky virtuosity quickly sorted that out.
And so to The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s ballet score from 1913 about human sacrifice in an ancient Russian tribe. Blood-lust took a back seat and the high-calorie Brahms was left far behind: the Parisians chose a refreshing lightness of touch which spilled into shimmering explosions of wonder, conjuring up the rising energy of the earth breaking into bloom. Colours were transparent, the insistent repetitions bouncing rather than battering, the woodwind solos remarkable for their songfulness. In sonic garb so chic, the story’s horror was admittedly lessened – though the closing Sacrificial Dance still took us right inside the physical sensations of the victim. Mostly the orchestra seemed to breathe as one; a pity that some startling ensemble problems disrupted a few transitions.
That was forgiven in a sizzling encore, the overture to Bizet’s Carmen delivered with boulevardier panache that virtually turned the rhythm into a can-can and the Toreador’s Song into a suave chanson. The spirit of Charles Trenet hovered tantalisingly close.