Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnányi – 1 April

Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Vadim Repin (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Did the choice of one of Shostakovich’s most quixotic of symphonies, one with a strong element of slapstick, have anything to do with the date? Whatever the reasoning, it was a particularly welcome choice because the First Symphony receives all too few performances. With its knockabout humour and frequent mood switches, it is no easy to piece to bring off. An under-rehearsed performance could be an uncomfortable experience. Conducting as much with his shoulders as his hands, Christoph von Dohnányi – normally that most serious of musicians – displayed an unexpected gift for comic timing and delivered the goods in fine style.

Of course there is more to Shostakovich One than knockabout, notably the deeply affecting slow movement which here received a subtle and powerful rendering from the Philharmonia’s strings. Written in 1925, the work does raise an interesting question though: where would Shostakovich’s music have gone had Socialism and the rise of Stalin not snuffed out experimentation? One suspects that an agreeably anarchic Shostakovich might have emerged.

For the most part, this was a particularly well worked-out and played performance, the first movement’s slinky flute solo receiving appropriately sleazy treatment from Jaime Martin, and the all-important piano part despatched with manic glee by Elizabeth Burley, both Guest Principals. Curiously, the normally flamboyant Andrew Smith’s timpani interjection in the finale, a crucial moment, was strangely subdued.

After the interval we were treated to an outstanding Beethoven Fifth, outstanding because it combined passion and integrity in equal measure. This was unapologetically big-orchestra Beethoven – 8 double basses, quadruple wind: traditional in the very best sense of the word. There was much to savour. On the one hand Dohnányi’s unusually precise calibration of dynamics – where forte meant forte and double fortes were clearly observed, and, above all, the care shown over piano markings. On the other hand, there were excellent internal balances. If this sounds like good housekeeping, that is undoubtedly true, but there was also real purpose and trenchancy. The slow movement encapsulated its virtues, an Andante distinctly con moto as marked, the speed judged to a nicety, precise care given to the opening viola and cello theme’s note values, giving it a snap where it is often limp. The scherzo’s precisely gauged dynamics and the controlled lead into the finale meant that when the trombones made their first appearance they added power and weight. This was a performance that really culminated, arriving at the final bars with satisfying inevitability.

Unfortunately, Vadim Repin’s Mendelssohn gave little pleasure. He appeared to be having some intonation problems, especially in the first movement, and paid not enough attention to what is actually written, haring off at the first sign of triplets and dragging out the music unconscionably elsewhere, notably in the slow movement. Dohnányi and the orchestra did their best with their wayward soloist. To compound things, certain atrocious members of the audience took photos during the performance. The speedy introduction of fixed penalties – say the confiscation and destruction of offenders’ cameras – would not come amiss.

The symphonies, however, were wonderfully done, the Beethoven being “lived-in”, the fruit of long experience, its many details all contributing to something overwhelmingly satisfying.

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