Philharmonia Orchestra Concert – 12th March

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 March, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The replacements thus far for Wolfgang Sawallisch for Part One of his Philharmonia Orchestra Beethoven cycle – hopefully he will be able to make the next instalment – have been rather less ’traditional’ than Sawallisch himself. Both Sir Charles Mackerras (first two concerts) and, now, Marek Janowski have opted for various degrees of ’historical awareness’. Janowski though is more ’central’ when it comes to bunching first and second violins together, and in producing a fuller string sound. He is though a conductor that puts his foot hard on the accelerator in respect of Beethoven’s fast metronome marks.

The chameleon-like Philharmonia responded wonderfully well to Polish-born (now German citizen) Janowski’s totally professional conducting – every gesture meant something within the fabric of the music; the playing was beautiful, buoyant and detailed.

Janowski has a knack of making textures lucid without drawing attention to them. Throughout the concerto there were numerous touches in the woodwinds – this section in peerless form – that are rarely heard, or certainly as meaningfully as here. And such a beguiling orchestral commentary only set into relief how impersonal Zimmermann was. Janowski unfolded an orchestral introduction beautifully modulated between sweetness and purpose; Zimmermann’s first entry so lacked confidentiality that the orchestra’s gambit seemed irrelevant.

Zimmermann has a fabulous technique, and with it a definite sense of order and meticulous preparation – but no sense of fantasy or extemporisation. Although the brisk tempo for the first movement, just over 20 minutes (including a lengthy unidentified cadenza), had a feeling of rightness (this concerto is synonymous with lyrical space and deep searching; probably not Beethoven’s intention), there was no real contrast with the succeeding slow movement, which refused deliberate tread until the still-centre of reflection bought welcome musing. The big miscalculation was the ’Finale’, which was rushed. Zimmermann had the virtuosity to bring it off but at the cost of losing short notes in the urgency – in all things, including music, the small print matters. Zimmermann seemed more concerned with technical address than musical probing; the Paganini-element of the cadenzas summarised his approach.

Janowski’s superb conducting whetted the appetite for the symphony; in the event this was only partially met. The stumbling-block, again, was the ’Finale’. Despite the Philharmonia’s nimbly agile playing, this didn’t compensate for lack of characterisation; indeed there were moments that sounded hard-pressed, and the clarinet and bassoon interjections towards the close were all but lost in the melee.

If, as the symphony progressed, it seemed (despite all repeats observed) more and more one-dimensional and small-scale, this was due to Janowski’s pushing the music on. There was little respite from a fleet first movement to a lyrically impulsive slow movement, yet, here, Janowski’s turn into more wistful contemplation was exquisitely judged, Barnaby Robson’s clarinet solos gratefully reciprocal.

As with the concerto, the first movement was marvellously realised. From a sustained and subtly-shaded slow introduction, the ’Allegro’ flew into life. Janowski’s spectral traversal delighted the ear in its exact dovetailing of strings and wind, dynamic contrasts, and no lack of expression. Greater variety of equilibrium-related pulse between the movements would have brought a bigger dimension; one certainly attainable but overlooked this evening.

Hopefully Janowski will be invited back to the Philharmonia – and not just because he was able to rescue a concert. As a 4-CD set of live performances with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France shows (Le Chant du Monde CMX 378081.84 – Brahms to Wagner via Bruckner, Debussy, Sibelius and others), Janowski is a versatile and thoughtful musician who really should be a more regular visitor to London than hitherto.

  • This ’rescued’ Beethoven cycle continues on Thursday, 14 March, with Matthias Bamert conducting Symphony No.5; Murray Perahia plays Piano Concerto No.4
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201

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