Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi – Bruckner 8 – Martin Helmchen plays Mozart / York Höller Music of Today

York Höller
Ex tempore [UK premiere]
Improvisation sur le nom de Pierre Boulez
Feuerwerk [UK premiere]

Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, edited Robert Haas]

Members of the Philharmonia OrchestraNicholas Collon [Höller]

Martin Helmchen (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

York Höller. Photograph: Thorsten HeidemannThe Music of Today presentation offered three works by German composer York Höller (born 1944). He discussed his music with Nicholas Collon in unpretentious terms. Collon conducted impressive performances with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Ex tempore (2001) calls for eleven players (piano, harp, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, string trio and two percussionists) and over 15 minutes develops from the incisive attack of piano and harp (their respective resonance also important) through diverse tempos and textures via elaborate solos to a rapid-fire harp-slapping, bongo-dominated conclusion. The scintillating four-minute tribute to Pierre Boulez on his 60th-birthday (1985) requires sixteen musicians (piano, harp, two percussionists, string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and two horns). Perhaps deliberately French-sounding, this pugnacious piece is packed with incident en route to an expressive envoi. The nine-minute Feuerwerk (2004) is also scored for sixteen players (here we lose the harp and a horn and gain a trumpet and a trombone). Feuerwerk leaps with vitality and is somewhat whimsical, attractively so (and perhaps Höller does not forget the Fireworks of Debussy and Stravinsky), careering along like a comic caper and brilliantly lit. It closed a revealing short recital of music by a composer who is perhaps not yet a household name in the UK. Höller’s concerto for cellist Adrian Brendel premieres in Hamburg next January.

Martin Helmchen. Photograph: Marco BorggreveIn the evening concert, Christoph von Dohnányi returned to the Philharmonia Orchestra. They provided a lively and detailed accompaniment to Martin Helmchen that was searching in its expression if less autumnal than usual (this may be Mozart’s final piano concerto, but according to Ludwig Köchel he had thirty-one more works to write, if leaving the K626 Requiem incomplete). Helmchen played with admiral clarity and keen music-serving virtuosity, never dominating yet ensuring that ripples, decorations and incisions meant something. There were delightfully significant contributions from the woodwinds and the strings were poised. If the first movement got a little faster as it went along, there was nothing precipitate and numerous half-lights bespoke a probing but never cloying interpretation. With a slow movement at once simple and profound and a finale both playful and innocent, this was a reading that offered serenity but not valediction. At numerous points Helmchen added charming, sometimes witty ornamentation, and even a few solo bars of his own in the finale – all brought off in the best possible taste.

Christoph von DohnányiBruckner 8, a supreme masterpiece, began in reverential hush, the first movement gathering impulse yet finding a rapt still-centre before a crushing climax and a coda in which the clock stopped without delay. Dohnányi had the measure of the music’s agony and ecstasy and went on to deliver a scherzo of rare swiftness and locomotive power, the trio being of related pulse but without seeming rushed; all over in a nifty non-retarded 12 minutes, this was quite something. As was the Adagio, solemn, spacious, sacred and sublime, and benefitting from Robert Haas’s longer text (Leopold Nowak’s edition may be truer to Bruckner’s later wishes in terms of a cut as the cymbal-capped climax is reached, but Haas’s greater reach is always the more satisfying). These 25 minutes were altogether special. The finale had its fair share of force and impetus, offset by courtly grace and seraphic suggestions – green hills in view on this Parsifalian journey – and topped by the awesome coda.

The occasional brass slippage – and overload – aside, the fastidious playing was magnificent in its commitment, Dohnányi ensuring that the writing for the two violin sections was thrown into relief through being antiphonally disposed, and that Bruckner’s requested trio of harps was honoured. Thank God (to whose Glory this symphony is dedicated) there is still a conductor around who values the Haas edition (for all that it is something of a composite between the 1887 and 1890 versions). The only sadness is that this 77-minute performance was not recorded – one had imagined that Signum would have wanted it following the success of this partnership’s Bruckner 4. So this consummate No.8 must now be of blessed memory.

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