Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnányi – Beethoven [Egmont … Kit Armstrong plays Piano Concerto 3 … Pastoral Symphony]

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Kit Armstrong (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 20 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Christoph von DohnányiIf proof were needed that it is still possible to breathe new life into well-established formulae, this Beethoven programme was proof positive. Here the tried and tested sandwich of Overture, Concerto and Symphony worked perfectly, producing a richly satisfying evening. The reason for its success was not hard to find. For nearly the concert’s entire duration this was the Philharmonia Orchestra at its vintage best. To get the one disappointment out the way, Egmont was initially proficient rather than inspired. Suddenly, however, with the coda the work ignited, culminating in a fine blaze of sound and one was left ruminating on what might have been.

The Third Piano Concerto brought us the young Kit Armstrong (he is 18) who is carving out a major career, not only as a pianist but also as a composer, with commissions for a clarinet concerto, a string quartet and an orchestral piece already in train. The main thing worth mentioning is that he is the very antithesis of a Klavier-tiger. This was one of the most understated C minor concerto’s it would be possible to imagine, delicacy and restraint the order of the day. This worked best in the shadowy exchanges between piano and winds at the heart of the first movement. The Largo, here taken very gently at a daringly slow tempo and fully sustained, had a hypnotically withdrawn inner beauty. Elsewhere however, for instance in the finale, one craved for a greater degree of assertiveness, for the music to emerge rambunctious rather than gently playful: Beethoven is after all the most immoderate of composers. Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra provided the most solicitous and precisely calibrated of accompaniments.

The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony brought the rich harvest of a lifetime’s conducting experience, and was superbly played throughout, especially by the four woodwind principals and the first horn, all of whom managed the difficult feat of sounding both rustically characterful and elegantly sophisticated. Throughout, Dohnányi’s tempos were chosen with quite extraordinary acuity, the opening ‘happy feelings on arriving in the country’ a genuine Allegro, virile and forward-moving, yet feeling unhurried; the ‘scene by the brook’ flowing serenely and expansively; the ‘Peasant’s Merrymaking’ an uninhibited Allegro leading to an electrifying ‘Storm’, its climaxes all the more effective for the precision and restraint of the build-up; and the ‘Shepherd’s Thanksgiving’ had that spiritual uplift, the kind of aural halo, which this movement cries out for but seldom receives, and suffused with an amplitude which was deeply moving.

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