Philharmonia Orchestra German Romantics – 2 February

Overture – Leonore No.3
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 February, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It says something for London’s vibrant musical life that in the space of 24 hours I was in the company of Haitink, Brendel, Mackerras, Ax and Dohnányi, the music-making being consistently excellent and illuminating. If things go well, concerts remain unbeatable experiences.

As a critic one can swing with the majority or be a lone voice … as long as opinions are honest and informed. You see, my friend really did not like Dohnányi’s account of the Rhenish Symphony, while I enjoyed it enormously. I suspect our differences are reflected in my appreciation of Dohnányi’s sifting of those things that are, if you will, Schumann’s DNA, namely rhythmic and instrumental divisions that Dohnányi was so punctilious with, realised with a musical pleasure of motivic interaction, lightness of touch and inner-part clarity. Having the antiphonal violins helps and this grouping paid huge dividends throughout this most pleasurable of symphonies. My friend missed the horns. He meant that he missed Mahler’s horns (Mahler re-orchestrated all Schumann’s symphonies). Dohnányi’s implicit trust in Schumann’s notation gave much aural delight, a satisfaction the Philharmonia shared through smiling faces when a tricky rhythm was negotiated or a detail spot-on. Textural clarity won the day, from the glorious expansiveness of the opening movement to an exhilarating Finale via the solemn and moving cathedral scene. My friend’s thoughts noted, this is my review!

This was the first of a three-concert German Romantics series with Dohnányi, and it couldn’t have got off to a better start. Leonore No.3 was of magical hush (breathtaking pianissimos) and pregnant distending – which underlined the overture’s Fidelio connections and (sometimes) its use in the opera (try Bernstein’s recording) – with Dohnányi sustaining Beethoven’s structural elongations to dramatic effect. The off-stage trumpet was perfectly balanced, and if the coda was too controlled to be a leap to freedom, the musical articulation was suitably heroic.

Heroic is a word that amply describes the Brahms, both the piece and the stamina and virtuosity needed by the soloist. Emanuel Ax is always at the service of the music, therefore his technical accomplishment should be observed rather than lauded. Whether him or the instrument, the piano’s tone was somewhat dry, although this is music that doesn’t need any additives. Dohnányi’s taut yet pliable conducting emphasised the symphony-manqué that this concerto is, yet there was nothing obbligato about Ax’s contribution. His generosity, both to music and to colleagues, eschewed false over-spill. Musical liasing was notable; no wonder Ax refused to take any applause until the Orchestra stood to share it. The Finale was uninhibited, Ax producing ear-perking colours and touches, savouring ’Hungarian’ curlicues and summating the closing cadenza. My friend thought the slow movement “mesmeric”. We agreed on this!

  • German Romantic concerts continue on 6 & 11 February
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
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    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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