Proms 2015: Charles Dutoit and Elisabeth Leonskaja do Debussy, Mozart and Shostakovich

Debussy's Petite suite, Mozart's Piano Concerto No 22 and Shostakovich's 15th Symphony at the Proms.

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There are few conductors I enjoy watching more than Charles Dutoit. The 78-year-old Swiss maestro combines the two things I value most in a performer - utter mastery of their art, and infectious joy at sharing it with others. With the forces of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and world-renowned soloist Elisabeth Leonskaja at his disposal, this was always going to be an evening to remember. And so it proved.

Given the heavyweights that came after it in this programme, Debussy’s Petite suite seems featherlight by comparison. Orchestrated from the original piano duet by Henri Büsser, it is witty, stylish and evocative - albeit quite short. Throughout, I could barely keep my eyes off Dutoit, who waltzed alone on the podium and heralded particularly emphatic cadences with a flourishing downbeat and an audible growl.

To some, I can see that he would be too much, too distracting, but I feel like this is what live music is for: to hear the music, yes, but also the see the sweat on the brows of those making it. Just as I adore Glenn Gould’s humming in his recordings of the Goldberg Variations, so I like Dutoit’s grunts.

Charles Dutoit in action with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja celebrates her 70th birthday this year, but it is almost 30 years since she last appeared at the Proms. She returns this year to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 with admirably smoothness and a glowing darkness of tone. Her unshowy excellence was a welcome counterpoint in a season that has seen its fair share of pianistic absurdities.

There are no surviving cadenzas for this concerto, and Leonskaja chose to give us the ones Benjamin Britten wrote in 1966 for Sviatoslav Richter. Despite my abiding love for Britten in general, I’ve never liked his additions to this piece. They jar with what has gone before, and not in a good way. Of course, Leonskaja poured them forth with aplomb, but they detracted from the overall tone of her performance.

Elisabeth Leonskaja at the piano. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Nevertheless, she was rapturously received by an audience thrilled to have her back at the Proms, and she rewarded their loyalty with a marvellously intimate rendition of Chopin’s D flat major nocturne. I’ve written before about the extraordinary quality of silence that an impromptu solo encore can produce at the Proms, and this was no different.

The big beast of this programme, though, was always going to be Shostakovich Symphony No 15 - the composer’s last, written as his health was declining in 1971. It’s an emphatically brilliant smorgasbord of witty allusions (most notably to Rossini’s William Tell overture and motifs from Wagner’s Ring Cycle). Again, Dutoit was completely compelling to watch as he guided the orchestra through the fierce climaxes and extended, overlapping solo sections. The percussion and woodwind distinguished themselves especially here, but it was all together a very polished performance, rounding off an evening that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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