Philharmonia/Dohnányi – 9 October

The Marriage of Figaro – Overture
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic)

Paul Lewis (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The comic, sublime and awe-inspired was handsomely collected in this concert, the Philharmonia Orchestra responding magnificently to Christoph von Dohnányi’s authoritative, flexible and sometimes-genial direction.

Figaro was on tiptoe, scurrying pianissimos vied with knockabout fortissimos – fleet, articulate and chortling wit. A slightly grander way with the first movement might have benefited the majestic aspects of one of Mozart’s greatest piano concertos. Initially a little self-effacing, nervous maybe, Paul Lewis settled quickly to deliver a performance that was straightforward yet touched with a greatness achieved through innate address of the music itself. Lewis doesn’t parade an ego or do anything for the sake of it.

Superlative woodwind playing and Lewis’s sparkle and intelligence elevated the first movement. Lewis’s choice of cadenza (there isn’t one by Mozart) was integral to the piece and Lewis’s conception. The programme was silent on this matter. I asked Lewis. Alfred Brendel’s, he said – makes sense. The flowing ’Andante’ had its operatic moments acknowledged, while the time-taken finale’s formal rondo yielded ethereal and sublime expression. What stood out in this performance was not only Lewis’s discernment but also the teamwork between all involved.

In a concert that remembered Otto Klemperer’s daughter Lotte, who died in July, the repertoire was apt; equally apt was Dohnányi’s usual arrangement of the strings (antiphonal violins with double basses on the left, cellos in front of them), the one that Klemperer also used.

On this occasion, one was reminded of Klemperer’s great Philharmonia recording of Bruckner’s Fourth. With tempos perfectly judged, Dohnányi allowed episodes to be indivisible; this was a real symphonic unfolding that was alive to changes of tempo and mood without unsettling the whole. A few seconds into the slow movement there was some electronic interference. Dohnányi stopped. Rightly so! There was beautiful cello and viola playing throughout the evening; the violas have the limelight in Bruckner’s ’Andante quasi allegretto’ – very atmospheric here … but if someone’s going to sneeze just on the final bar…

Standing out was the Scherzo, deliberate and trenchant with spectral woodwind and brass dancing and suggestive of insects; the Trio’s slow lilt suggested a lullaby. The outer movements encompassed power and the most refined pianissimos – and an all-important sense of direction. Certainly the ultimate coda was as inevitable as it was splendid, and capped a compelling performance.

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