Philharmonia Orchestra – Human/Nature: Music for a Precious Planet – Xian Zhang conducts Beethoven’s Violin Concerto & Mahler’s The Song of the Earth – with Alina Ibragimova, Sarah Connolly & Andreas Schager

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61

Das Lied von der Erde

Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Andreas Schager (tenor)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Xian Zhang

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 11 November, 2021
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

I find it hard to believe, but it looks as though this Philharmonia concert gave us the first time Alina Ibragimova has performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the UK; the only other reference to it I can find was with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Germany last month, which is worth noting, given her all-embracing repertoire and tireless schedule. It is well known that Ibragimova (with Cédric Tiberghien) has form in Beethoven with the Sonatas, and her remarkable performance in the Concerto only compounded matters in her inventiveness and far-sighted grasp of what can be done with this elusive, romantic work, especially the way in which it contrasts the most tender intimacy with moments of unexpected, grand rhetoric. It helped that Xian Zhang was so on the ball keeping Beethoven’s structural goal-posts in mind, with an unobtrusive elegance that brought out the Philharmonia’s ultra-responsive best, and I greatly admired the tact she and her team dealt with the Concerto’s motto, first heard on timpani and as pervasive as the Fifth Symphony’s motto. Ibragimova knows how to characterise music, as near as matters to the point of putting words into its mouth, and her witty interaction with the Philharmonia’s peerless woodwind – in particular a wonderfully wise, sometimes wisecracking bassoon – was just one aspect of her level of engagement. The way she played herself in with the first violins before her entry as soloist was like shaking hands with friends she was meeting at a party, and there was a compelling, extended passage of synthesis in the cadenza – Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s version, which includes timpani taps, of the one Beethoven wrote for his piano transcription of this Concerto – that gave even more depth to this work’s profile, as did the improvisational link from the slow movement into the Finale. You think you know a work well, then along comes an edge-of-seat performance such as this impulsive summons to think again.

The Philharmonia then expanded massively for Mahler’s song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, in which there was no doubt about Zhang’s keen ear for the composer’s orchestration genius, her propulsive sense of momentum and an innate structural overview, but it did seem that things like perspective, colour, just stand-and-stare atmosphere were down more to the orchestra and the two singers. She was more at home in the brash tenor songs, but then she expanded into the long orchestral passage in the middle of ‘Abschied’ (Farewell), the last of these six Chinese/German poems, and the result was magical, as was the lovely aimlessness of falling leaves at the start of ‘Der Einsame in Herbst’ (The Lonely One in Autumn).

As opposite poles attract, so Sarah Connolly and Andreas Schager were suitably polarised. Schager swung into the opening of ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ (Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow) with all the reckless abandon of a vocal Tarzan, and it was not subtle and it was thrilling. Schager’s Heldentenor rode the orchestral waves with insouciance, and it seemed that a foaming goblet of wine was always near at hand – drink and be merry, for tomorrow etc. – but he scaled down roar and swagger for the touching poignancy of ‘Von der Jugend’ (Of Youth ) before reaching for the bottle again in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (The Drunkard in Spring).

Connolly knows well how singers and audiences alike defer to Das Lied as a sort of life-coach, and she always brings a quiet wisdom and acceptance to her three songs. This time, she caught memorably the gentle asperity of recalling long-ago desire, and then in ‘Abschied’ pulled all the strands of resignation, memory, release, perhaps hope together into an objective appraisal of the wonder of living, the imagery of mortality conveyed by the Philharmonia’s increasingly atomised playing, a brilliant evocation of something becoming nothing. As is now almost always the case, there were English subtitles for the poems, line by line, suspended in the atmospherically darkened auditorium, so you don’t register them as a whole, as you do when they and the translations are printed in the programme.

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