Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnányi Jonathan Biss [Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage … From the New World]

Overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.27
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Jonathan Biss (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 May, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Christoph von DohnányiHow deceptive appearances can be. On the face of it this standard programme – an overture, a concerto and a symphony from a well-respected elder-statesman conductor and an up-and-coming pianist – would have been all-too-easily passed over. In the event, this was an outstanding concert from first note to last. At least part of the reason can be summed up in a single word – ‘integrity’: not for a single bar was there the slightest suspicion of the performers being more important than the music.

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Mansel Bebb who died ‘in harness’ in March, for 30 years the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Personnel Manager although this bare designation hardly does justice to his role, nor to his close relationship with a succession of conductors. A pervasive and astute presence, his influence extended far beyond the simple mechanics one might have assumed, and in an age where touring became central to the Orchestra’s survival, his organisational and human skills frequently kept the show on the road. On this occasion the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing did his memory proud although he might not have been best pleased at the late arrival of the first horn!

Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage may be less well known than at least three of his other overtures but its comparative neglect is undeserved. Christoph von Dohnányi invested its quiet opening and closing sections with enormous dignity. The exultant central Allegro was light on its feet, yet found a Klemperer-like gravitas at significant moments. The Philharmonia Orchestra responded with poise and fervour.

Jonathan BissBy contrast, Schumann’s Piano Concerto is anything but neglected but seldom does it receive as completely satisfactory a performance as this one. The youthful Jonathan Biss, son of the violinist Miriam Fried, belied his years with a mellow reading of a restraint and maturity that would have done credit to a pianist three times his age.

With Dohnányi at the helm what was immediately apparent was the quality of the collaboration, the orchestra listening intently and totally at one with its soloist. Particular care was lavished on the music’s joins, for instance the lead into the becalmed A flat section, and as a consequence the cadenza emerged completely naturally from what had preceded it. The central Andantino grazioso was taken flowingly, precisely locating the music’s ‘intermezzo’ quality; and the finale’s elation was all the more effective for the patience and precision with which the build-up to the adrenaline-surge of the closing bars was achieved.

Of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony it is difficult to write dispassionately for this was one of the most wholly satisfying performances of it and a privilege to hear, the others being in concerts conducted by Boult and by Kubelík. In his score of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony Jascha Horenstein wrote: “There is much wonderful music between the lines”, a comment which could equally well apply to Dohnányi’s reading of its successor.

A lifetime’s experience was invested into Dohnányi’s interpretative choices – a swift opening Allegro which yet managed perfectly to encompass the flute solo without one even noticing the slight relaxation, and a cataclysmic, scrunching climax to the same movement as the floodgates finally opened; then a flowing dignified Largo, the string accompaniment to the cor anglais perfectly calibrated (the solo itself played with deepest emotion but without narcissism by Jill Crowther); and, above all, a finale of extraordinary power and a controlled forward momentum. This was the Philharmonia Orchestra at its very finest: a wonderful memorial for Mansel Bebb.

  • Christoph von Dohnányi conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in Beethoven, Dvořák & Brahms in the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 14 May
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

  • Southbank Centre

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