Whenever American orchestras return home after a European tour, they love to brandish a sheaf of glowing reviews: it somehow validates their artistry to have it rubber-stamped by the Old World. But when the Philadelphia Orchestra set out on its latest tour, the press reports had already been filed. They crossed the Atlantic eastwards rather than westwards, and they had nothing to do with art. In April the organisation, which employs the musicians, filed for bankruptcy, a symptom of the pressures facing all US orchestras.
How an ensemble that is legally bankrupt can fund a European tour is one of the wonders of American philanthropy. But there was another wonder to behold in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to the Edinburgh International Festival. It played with undiminished homogeneity and finesse. It showed a sense of discipline that did not rule out corporate spirit or individual flair. And it demonstrated an overall responsiveness – the musicians to each other, to Charles Dutoit’s relaxed but secure direction, above all to the music – that amounted to a masterclass in Romantic music-making. Let’s hope the Philadelphians’ London Proms concert on Thursday maintains this gold standard.
Its Edinburgh programme, bankable rather than adventurous, played to its strengths. The opening of Sibelius’s Finlandia announced a string sound about double the size of any that has been heard at the 2011 festival. It was less a slab of American beefcake, more a body of ample, beautifully varnished timbres, bound by exemplary balance and sensitivity to dynamics. Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 2, played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet with characteristic insouciance, came across as a sparkling entr’acte rather than the usual tub-thumping spectacle, leaving Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as the main show.
Dutoit has probably conducted this piece once too often to engineer a roof-raising performance, but he did shape it impeccably, bringing the drama to life without exaggeration and inspiring the orchestra to a Witches’ Sabbath of truly shivery proportions. The Philadelphians is still palpably a great orchestra. It may be bankrupt in the eyes of the law, but artistically it is rich beyond measure.