Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnányi Alfred Brendel

Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 June, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This outstanding concert began with Thomas Adès’s Asyla. “Places of safety … Places of confinement”: such ambiguity underlines this very impressive work, which since 1997 has both confirmed Adès’s stature and been an achievement that he hasn’t always managed to live up to. Over its 20-minute-plus course, Asyla, whether through the use of ‘industrial’ percussion or luminous textures, is a nightmarish progression of sounds, some distant (as from the back desks of violas), some eerie and some consolatory in their warmth; gawky exhortations and clockwork mechanisms are further divisions (yet integrated into this symphony manqué), there are echoes of Berg and Bartók, and a mastery of a very large orchestra (including grand and upright pianos) that compels attention. Christoph von Dohnányi led an extremely well prepared performance for which Adès was in attendance but did not take a bow.

Alfred Brendel ©Philips & Benjamin EalovegaOn paper, Alfred Brendel playing a Beethoven concerto may not set the pulse racing – for all his pre-eminence in this repertoire. Yet despite all the times he has presented this music he gave a reading that was fresh and totally committed and was blessed with an utterly sympathetic ‘accompaniment’ – both to him and the music. Indeed, Brendel and Dohnányi proved a potent partnership. Brendel’s first entry was quizzical, his introduction of contrasting material yielding; he was always rugged (yet sensitive) as well as accommodating of the orchestra’s soloists. The cadenza was both a retrospective and a summation of the first movement and, with the orchestra returned, the closing bars were initially rapt, then impulsive and finally emphatic. With a slow movement of profound expression and a finale of wit and a light touch – the coda positively chuckled – the seal was set on a masterly performance from all concerned.

Brahms’s Second Symphony was a model of scrupulous preparation and fired-up performance. Dohnányi unfolded the work with a sure touch as to shape and direction, dynamic variance a constant joy, so too the use of antiphonal violins. The first movement – the exposition repeat made inevitable – glowed and was unforced (the unofficial ‘Pastoral’ epithet this work attracts seemed apt) but did not lack heft, while the Adagio, also flowing, added a layer of intensity that prevented any sameness. This contrasted with a beguilingly limpid Allegretto grazioso, light and springy, then mercurial and robust. The finale, muscular and joyous, and not without shadows, led to an exhilarating conclusion. In short: magnificent! Good news that the Philharmonia was recording this.

The final word should go to the Royal Festival Hall, currently under aural scrutiny, as audiences and musicians become accustomed to the ‘new’ acoustic. Whether because of some on-going tweaking (if so, no more is needed) or because these particular musicians judged everything to a nicety, it’s good to report that there was no treble harshness, the bass projection was ideal, balance, instrumental positioning and separation was exemplary and there was a tangibility and presence to the sound that reminded of the RFH of old together with the ambience of the new that seemed just about right.

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