MUSIC / The breath of life: Robert Maycock on Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
There is a swift answer to the 'conductors aren't what they used to be' theory: go take a break in Manchester. As the Proms have heard in the last few days, the city's orchestras are growing under the guidance of two distinctive opposites. The Halle with Kent Nagano delivers brain and brilliance, the BBC Philharmonic with Yan Pascal Tortelier offers heart and soul. Don't expect them to solve the problem of declining audiences: that, as in London, is a straight matter of oversupply. But if you need signs of vitality and individuality, look no further.

From the Philharmonic on Monday, the opening of Faure's Pelleas et Melisande suite said it all. Just the gentle rise and fall of the first phrase was enough to hush the residual background noise in the Royal Albert Hall. Tortelier makes the music breathe like a living entity, and goes on to shape it with the fluency of a lifespan. He does it without flashy technique or self- conscious body language, trusting instinct and experience - he has been a professional violinist - and a fine feeling for colour and balance. In the Prelude, impassioned heights were reached by dynamic shading, without distortion of pace, while the grave and introverted 'Death of Melisande' recognised that this music was designed to set the scene, not to carry the grief itself.

Guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet had two short spots, plenty to present his prowess as a real foil for Tortelier. He's like a Nagano of the piano, or even a Ravel of the concert hall. The skill, the ear and the coordination are phenomenal, and he was at one with the conductor in achieving subtleties of relationship to the orchestra: the exact judgement of a quick, darting interjection, or the confidence to keep quiet when interesting things are happening in the woodwind. It's quite something to make the tricky but unassertive piano part of Faure's Ballade sound as lucid and free-flowing.

Yet when the full-hearted playing of the orchestra intervened, there was usually a sense of release. Thibaudet does not have Tortelier's directness. His miracles of light and shade are exquisitely calculated, and the minutely fluctuating pace sounds like the product of intervention rather than natural ebb and flow. In the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, everything fell beautifully into place from the massive opening solo through to the lyrical sweetness of the piano's utterances before it is swallowed up in the final crescendo. But the life-or-death urgency of the climaxes came from elsewhere.

It carried on to the Symphony No 1 by Sibelius, a composer who used to be scorned in France. Tortelier, who has conducted his work at the Proms before, has the necessary breadth of understanding, the ability to let music grow gradually and inexorably. The Philharmonic found a degree extra intensity. For once, the shock quiet ending was a real human collapse, a breath too far. Out in the arena, in the numbed moment before the applause took over, somebody audibly gasped in sympathy.