Philharmonia Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša – Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage & Brahms 1 – Jonathan Biss plays Beethoven

Overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.27
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Jonathan Biss (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 17 March, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jonathan BissPhotograph: © Benjamin EalovegaThe beautiful Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is rarely performed and it made a most satisfying starter to this concert. Jakub Hrůša has great sympathy for Mendelssohn’s music. The hushed opening was given a sense of peace as befits a becalmed vessel and the story continued as the breeze began to fill the sails and the Allegro strode boldly forward. The woodwind solos were nicely turned, dynamics were acutely contrasted and the late, dramatic solo from timpani was ideally powerful.

For the Beethoven, the Philharmonia was reduced by losing four players from each string section and the timpanist moved down to a pair of hand-tuned drums placed near the double basses. The result of these adjustments was a concession towards ‘period’ sound without going so far as to allow the modern Steinway to overpower the accompanists This particular piano seemed lighter in the bass than is usual with this model, although it could well be that the buoyancy and precision of Jonathan Biss’s left-hand gave that effect. He and Hrůša were at-one in their approach, which could be described as ‘symphonic’ since the music swept forward with a refreshing lack of lingering at quieter moments. There was expressive shading together with calculated contrasts of volumes but within an all-through tempo. This is late-18th-century music and perhaps the only concession towards the forthcoming popularity of the virtuoso pianist was Beethoven’s long first-movement cadenza that Biss chose; the fiery flurries around the rapid restatement of the main theme were certainly spectacular. After a placid if still expressive, slow movement, the Finale went at a splendidly rapid pace – a controlled dramatic brilliance which successfully represented the dramatic eagerness of the young Beethoven.

Jakub HrůšaPhotograph: Petra KlačkováThe success of Hrůša’s conducting of the Brahms is relevant to many things that he did not do. There are so many traditional pitfalls but these were successfully avoided. He did not linger sentimentally over the hushed dreamy moments of the first movement, nor did he slow down prior to the reduction of tempo required by Brahms for the close. He did not sentimentalise the Andante and was rewarded by Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s particularly sweet-toned violin solo. In the Finale the main theme was taken at the required Allegro non troppo ma con brio, a refreshing change from the familiar grandiose approach by some conductors of the previous generation, and above all there was no pomposity at the arrival of the great chorale near the end.

Some of the full-orchestra attacks were perhaps less forceful than they might have been; could it be to do with the timpani, which seemed not always to sustain the many rolls to the end, where some emphasis would have been suitable? Was this intentional or is it to do with the style of the timpanist? A concert by Hrůša and the Philharmonia last October did not show this characteristic. Nevertheless one cannot fault the beautifully blended balance – that between the woodwinds was carefully fashioned – a gently colourful sound and the brass section played lyrically as one unit.

Much 19th-century music will benefit from further partnerships between the Philharmonia and Hrůša.

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