Dohnányi at 75

Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This, the opening concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s new season, was also in celebration of its Principal Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi’s 75th birthday. A more quintessentially Dohnányi programme would be hard to imagine. First, Kurtág – Dohnányi has been a consistent advocate of new music – then Beethoven with fellow septuagenarian, Alfred Brendel, reminding us that both musicians are not only forward-looking but also perhaps the last of the great tradition, and finally Richard Strauss, whose operas Dohnányi has consistently championed.

Dohnányi is a formidable rehearser. This much was apparent in György Kurtág’s Stele, which in terms of orchestral playing was at least as impressive as that which followed. Whilst one may not warm to Kurtág’s elegy for his teacher, András Mihály – the hieratic blocks of sound outstay their welcome – there was never any doubt that this was a committed and fully worked out performance as one could wish to hear that was deeply impressive from all sections of the large orchestra Kurtág employs.

The evening’s most memorable music-making came with the Beethoven. Whilst it would be idle to pretend that Brendel’s fingers are now more fallible than they once were, that would be to miss the point. This was a performance remarkable for what was right rather than wrong. It was understated in the extreme, dynamic levels restrained, and with the minimum of point-making … but how effortlessly true it sounded. Dohnányi and the orchestra contributed the most sympathetic of backdrops, alert, well-focussed, detail emerging naturally from the scaled down orchestra – only five double basses – but forceful where needed. Brendel doesn’t just play this music, he inhabits it. Especially memorable was the lead-back from the first movement cadenza, hushed and tense, and the slow movement’s completely natural inwardness had us hanging on every note. The finale is music that Brendel may have despatched with greater bravura but he still plays it with a deadpan wit, and it still has the capacity to surprise.

Heldenleben should have been the evening’s crowning glory but came across as less than the sum of its parts, well played though it undoubtedly was. There was a confident if slightly hammy violin solo from leader James Clark, a portrait of the composer’s shrewish wife, Pauline. Amongst many virtues, the ‘Battle’ has seldom sounded clearer or more under control, Dohnányi marshalling his forces with understated assurance. Indeed since it mirrored some of the key qualities of the composer’s own conducting – light on its feet and avoiding bombast – one suspects Dohnányi’s interpretation is one that Strauss himself would thoroughly approve of. Though it’s Dohnányi’s care and moderation – the very qualities that distinguish his conducting of Strauss’s operas – and his lack of ego which make him a less than ideal interpreter of Heldenleben. Here one longed for the critics to be more venomous, the love music to be more voluptuous … after all, Heldenleben is a paean to the protagonist, his character, his battles, his love life, so one needs to identify with him. Here the musical landscape sounded very well cultivated but lacked an essential visceral quality.

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