WHEN Charles Dutoit was appointed music director of L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montr'eal in 1977, it did not cause much of a stir in the music business. Today, his accomplishments in Canada are celebrated around the world. Recordings have had a good deal to do with Mr. Dutoit's success -- a series of often remarkable performances of French repertoire that have set a new standard of elegance in the digital era.
I have usually admired the recordings, while in live concerts, I have tended to find the Dutoit-Montreal combination often vaguely disappointing. Until this recent tour, I had generally felt that Dutoit shone better when he was visiting other orchestras.
The two Carnegie Hall concerts heard last week have changed all that. In two programs with a variety of music -- from Beethoven through Tchaikovsky to Debussy and Ravel -- the orchestra and its maestro let it be known once and for all that L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montr'eal is one of the important ensembles on the international scene.
This is an orchestra of distinctive timbre. The strings are smooth, pliant, and capable of bite or gossamer transparency when needed. The winds exult in their individuality, which gives their ensemble passages a special texture. The brass is unfailingly even, from the loudest to the softest sustained playing. It is an orchestra that is first and foremost ideal for the French repertoire, but is also very much at home with Beethoven or even Tchaikovsky.
Clearly, Dutoit expresses himself best in the French repertoire. The maestro can often be accused of being too polite in climactic moments, but those climaxes always fit into an entity of uncommon subtlety, which is a quality French music must have at all times if the true beauties of the scoring and of the musical line are to be felt by an audience.
Thus, something like Ravel's ``Daphnis and Chlo'e'' (Second Suite) built to an impressive if not entirely barbaric climax, and along the way bewitched with its fragile textures, its seamlessly undulating patterns, its superb interweaving of musical lines throughout the sections of the orchestra. Likewise, Debussy's ``Ib'eria,'' (from the orchestral suite ``Images'') found Dutoit reveling in the quiet end of dynamics, getting the musicians to play those dynamics with rare finesse and delicacy.
Yet Dutoit could make his orchestra charge into Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony with force, with straightforward candor, and a seemingly limitless sense of power to ride those utterly Russian climaxes. One may have missed in Dutoit's restrained interpretation the abandon implicit in Tchaikovsky's musical fabric, but one consistently admired the way he avoided hysteria and bathetic excess and allowed the piece to sound clean, bold, and very beautiful.
Dutoit the accompanist was on impressive view with pianist Alicia de Larrocha in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto -- a particularly felicitous partnership in a performance that ranked as one of the best to be heard in Carnegie this season. Miss de Larrocha seemed tireless in her ebullience, in her ability to make the piano part sound constantly fresh, spontaneous, communicative. Dutoit listened and matched inflection for inflection, nuance for nuance.