Philharmonia Orchestra – Dohnányi conducts Mahler 1 and a Berg premiere
Thursday, February 21, 2002 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Christoph von Dohnányi opened tonight’s concert with a novelty – a Passacaglia left incomplete by Berg in 1913. Coming after the debacle of the Altenberg songs and the attendant confrontation with Schoenberg over musical direction, its finds the composer working towards the more elaborate formal structures of the Op.6 Orchestral Pieces. True, the orchestration, as realised by Christian von Borries, has a pointillist delicacy far removed from the dense textures of Op.6 – but, in as much as this looks forward to the Berg of the Violin Concerto, the fragment’s significance in fleshing out his small but vital output is undeniable. The audience’s response was appreciative if a trifle nonplussed.
Which was not so for the remainder of the concert. Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto is never easy to bring off live, but Zoltán Kocsis had its measure from the outset. Taking the metronome markings for the outer movements at face value means maintaining a dangerously fast pace which, in the difficult-to-balance first movement, left woodwind and brass exposed in articulation at some points.
Yet the vitality of the reading was never in doubt; nor the concentration Kocsis brought to the Adagio, the translucent contours of its string passages astutely judged by Dohnányi, with a central Presto whose velocity was lightly maintained. The Finale, bracingly brought off here, synthesises elements of the whole work, underlining the ’lighter, popular’ feel of the work compared to its predecessor, and the integrated, ’classical’ discourse of soloist and orchestra as a whole.
Mahler’s First Symphony crops up just a little too often in the concert hall these days. Although Dohnányi’s performance was in no sense revelatory, it found a convincing balance between the elements of fantasy in this erstwhile symphonic poem, and the formal coherence that Mahler only belatedly recognised. The textural haze of the opening was beautifully judged, and if the Wayfarer overtones of the first movement and the mock-funeral march of the third seemed a little grudging as to their folksy qualities, the incisiveness of the Scherzo and powerfully-controlled intensity of the Finale’s stormier passages were more than compensation.
Dohnányi set an ideally flowing tempo for the latter movement’s rather enervating second theme, and though the magical passage of retrospection just over half-way through was sold short emotionally, the triumph of the closing peroration was never in doubt – confirming that this conductor gets a response from the Philharmonia Orchestra less inhibited than with his work in Cleveland. Do the horns standing at the close have any benefit at this point? Not for this writer, but it undoubtedly added to the ovation the performance itself received.