Elegance, precision and balance – all core Philharmonia Orchestra characteristics – here found a perfect complement in Tugan Sokhiev’s undemonstrative well-focused conducting. These selfsame qualities were also much in evidence in the conducting of Paul Kletzki who worked regularly with the Philharmonia in the 1950s and 1960s. By coincidence this concert contained three works with which Kletzki was particularly associated (he recorded all three, notably the Chopin, which marked Maurizio Pollini’s emergence).
Berlioz’s Roman Carnival is frequently dashed off as an attention-grabbing curtain-raiser. Here, to open this matinee, it drew something altogether more subtle. The precisely judged interplay of strings and winds in the slow introduction allowed us to hear far more detail than normal and there was a magical cor anglais solo from Jill Crowther. The body of the Overture took a little time to ignite fully but culminated in a fine blaze.
The revelation was the performance of the Chopin. The concerto is generally treated as a display piece, the orchestra simply providing a backdrop. Whatever the weaknesses of Chopin’s orchestration, a much more equal partnership was in evidence here. Not only were there excellent contributions from Robin O’Neill (bassoon) and Katy Woolley (horn) but also much inner string detail saw the light of day. Evgeni Bozhanov, a Bulgarian in his late 20s, is the antithesis of today’s bland conveyor-belt pianists. With flexible tempos and spread hands, his playing hearks back to a previous generation. Occasionally laboured – the moonlit ‘Romanze’ was perhaps weighed down with too great an intensity – but for the most part this was spellbinding playing with Bozhanov finding a variety of nuance and constantly leading the ear on like a master storyteller. The finale was a particular delight, at once capricious, rhythmically in a constant state of flux but at the same time hugely affectionate and full of character. Not an easy act to accompany but the Sokhiev and the Philharmonia, fully engaged, stuck to Bozhanov like glue.
Sokhiev has previously conducted Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony with the Philharmonia, in 2003 and 2009. This was for the most part even better and what, in the wrong hands, can be a long listen flew by. A more-spacious tempo for the bulk of the first movement allows for a natural integration of the achingly nostalgic second subject but there could be little doubt as to Sokhiev’s feel for the music’s onward flow or his ability to shape those long string lines. The main climax was achieved with devastating effect. The scherzo was despatched with an airy insouciance whilst the Second Violinists covered themselves in glory in the tricky trio, always a tough test. The only slight disappointment came with the slow movement’s clarinet solo which was hardly ecstatic, an adjective which could however be applied to the strings at the climax. With the finale, the floodgates opened with a gloriously unfettered account, the Philharmonia at its peak.