Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Christopher Cowie (oboe)
Christoph von Dohnányi
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 28 January, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London Queen Elizabeth Hall
Christoph von Dohnányi may be approaching the end of his ten-year reign as the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Principal Conductor but once past a slightly rough-and-ready performance of Mozart’s ‘little’ G minor symphony there was nothing remotely routine about the remainder of this concert, fortunately being recorded for posterity.
Completed in 1945 in response to a request from John de Lancie, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal, Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto often passes gently by in a golden autumnal glow almost as if it were a twilight work, an orchestral counterpart to the Four Last Songs. However, there is more to it than that as Christopher Cowie, the Philharmonia’s co-principal, and Dohnányi so convincingly demonstrated. Making use of an edition by Jonathan Del Mar based on the original manuscript which corrects many errors in the published material, tempos in the outer movements were swift and the orchestral contribution was at once virile and affectionate, Dohnányi and his soloist very much of one mind in matters of rubato. Under Dohnányi’s crisp and probing baton the small orchestra honoured its colleague with some truly outstanding individual contributions, Rachel Roberts’s viola solo being especially eloquent. Above all, the work emerged as joyous and even at times exuberant, as in the finale’s dash to the finishing post, a wonderful antidote to all those comatose ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ renditions. Moments of transition – such as into the Andante, treated here almost as ‘an aria without words’ – were subtly handled. With fond memories of Alexei Ogrintchouk’s Scottish National Orchestra in March last year, this Philharmonia account was undoubtedly the most satisfactory live performance I have heard. (On a personal note, as a teenager I got to know Leon Goossens who gave the work its UK premiere in 1946.)
The Brahms symphony was equally noteworthy; the finale is marked Allegro energico e passionato, a marking which might have applied to the reading as a whole in which heart and head found a perfect equilibrium. Dohnányi has sometimes been portrayed as clinical but this had to be some of the most passionately committed music-making we have ever heard from him.
What really marked the performance out as special was its absolute certainty of tread and Dohnányi’s ability to locate precisely those moments of arrival and departure. In one of his sonnets Shakespeare writes: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore so do our moments hasten to their end” – in this performance there was no doubt whatsoever as to each movement’s destination, the passacaglia finale culminating to quite devastating effect and the first movement’s final bar taken absolutely straight. This performance was also extremely well played with countless inner details assimilated and clarified, the slow movement in particular having an unforced eloquence which was deeply moving. The plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral to Sir Christopher Wren, “Si monumentum requiris circumpice” (If you want a monument look around you) might equally well apply to this other Christoph(er) who has done so much for the Philharmonia Orchestra.