Philharmonia Music of Today & Dohnányi

Echo Within *
Clari4nics **
Okeanos Breeze

*Nicolas Hodges (piano)

**Mark van de Wiel, Elizabeth Kilpatrick, Diego Lucchesi & Peter Seago (clarinets, bass clarinets)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Piano Concerto No.12 in A, K414
Symphony No.1 in D

Steven Osborne (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It seems only yesterday when Christoph von Dohnányi last conducted Mahler 1 in London with the Philharmonia; actually it was just over two years ago. It is though just a few months since the Philharmonia played it for Benjamin Zander. (I missed both performances.) Dohnányi’s latest one was lavishly prepared in terms of dynamic variation, timbral hue, and instrumental balance. Given all the Mahler that’s around at the moment, Dohnányi had the singular triumph of making this music seem new-minted and, in terms of refinement, ear-opening.

Dohnányi’s intelligent, long-viewed Mahler 1 was built on the premise that this is a symphony, albeit one with vivid programmatic associations that were progressively lessened as the work took on its final four-movement form by the mid-1890s. Dohnányi gave the work substance and illusion. In this neatly constructed programme – two key-related first symphonies of very different ambition, ones written not that far apart (the Classical in 1917), the Prokofiev a tribute to Haydn, with the Mozart concerto being one of his more spontaneous efforts (rather Haydnesque, in fact). The time obviously spent so painstakingly on the Mahler left the Prokofiev somewhat exposed in the too-fast outer movements, neither of which meshed or sparkled enough. (It is a terribly difficult piece to play.) The middle movements fared best – the Larghetto superbly timed in putting its best foot forward, the Gavotte dryly witty.

The Mozart was beguilingly done. Steven Osborne is to be saluted for his wholly natural playing and light touch, which encompasses a ready wit and depth of feeling. The beautiful slow movement was touchingly unaffected, and the outer ones had a relish that was infectious. Dohnányi’s very sympathetic accompaniment was a pleasure in itself; both he and Osborne found the right balance between poise, spontaneity and affection for this gem of a work.

Throughout, Dohnányi’s requirement for antiphonal violins reaped huge dividends; and the two sections seemed particularly well balanced and interactive. The Mahler was superbly realised with an almost Stravinsky-like regard for rhythm and instrumental delineation. The off-stage brass in the dawn-rising, dew-stained opening sounded ideally from afar, and Dohnányi’s picking-out of the harp in the (repeated) exposition was suggestive of a travelling bard’s guitar. Being suggestive was as far as Dohnányi went. It was enough. There was nothing underlined, given false sentiment, made mawkish, or bludgeoned. This was a deeply refreshing and satisfying rendition, although the standing horns at the close, whether composer-requested or ’inherited’, seemed out of place (visually) given the non-sensational nature of Dohnányi’s reading. It was his attention to detail, blend, dynamics and the music’s contours that was engrossing, and which swept all before it.

Earlier in the evening, the Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (born 1977 in Osaka) was the subject of Music of Today. He chatted with Julian Anderson, MOT’s Artistic Director, and we heard three pieces. The relative anonymity of the solo piano work, despite Nicolas Hodges’s typical commitment, did not bode well, but the intertwining sonorities of the four clarinets raised the spirits, and Okeanos Breeze came across with the sort of inventiveness that marks our cards. Here, two Japanese traditional instruments, the sho (mouth organ) and koto (zither) are integrated with oboe, clarinet, viola and “hand-held percussion” (oboist and clarinettist doing the honours here). Fujikura offers no pastiche of Japanese indigenous music; rather the instruments waft kaleidoscopically to haunting affect (here under conjurer Martyn Brabbins) and, as Julian Anderson said, not only to bewitching aural effect but with a tantalising unfamiliarity of identity.

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