Philharmonia Orchestra – MOT & Dohnányi Pastoral

Jubilus [UK premiere]
Song Offerings

Vicci Wardman (viola)

Claire Booth (soprano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
David Porcelijn

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Gil Shaham (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 October, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

With the Royal Festival Hall currently being gutted, the resident orchestras – London Philharmonic and Philharmonia – have decamped next door to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Quite some effort has been made to make this a very positive temporary location. The QEH, however familiar it may be for concerts of chamber and contemporary music, has been ‘transformed’ to give a convincing illusion of being ‘new’ – the foyer has extra facilities and accommodates a crowd easily and, more important, the Hall itself has attracted some wooden baffle-boards at the rear of the platform. To be honest, what the latter has done for the sound is difficult to call – it was always more than acceptable – but the platform has unsuspected capacity and, on the evidence of this concert (this reviewer’s first since the ‘changes’), the Philharmonia Orchestra looked very comfortable and sounded wonderful – the acoustic being tangible, warm, and just about perfectly balanced. Four double basses were sufficient for the first half, and the six used for the Beethoven were very present.

Christoph von Dohnányi seemed in genial mood, often smiling at the musicians, albeit with no lack of vigorous gestures and innate musical demands. Indeed, the range of dynamics and tone-colours that he sought was constantly beguiling. And the Philharmonia was in sparkling form, ideal for Prokofiev’s early-twentieth-century tribute to his favourite composer, Haydn; this account of the ‘Classical’ was lively and poised – if arguably the outer movements were fractionally too fast and felt a little pressured – with the Larghetto perfectly paced and tenderly phrased, and the Gavotte danced without recourse to needless underlining.

This ever-fresh work was heard little more than half-an-hour after some ravishing sounds: those of Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings. The first “Music of Today” recital of the new season, also in the QEH, the rear of the stage partitioned off (either that or I failed to notice the baffle-boards!), and the auditorium’s size proving ideal for Julian Anderson (MOT’s Artistic Director) to talk with Harvey (born 1939) – who had nipped back from Paris where an opera for IRCAM is being prepared – and for two of Harvey’s pieces (both for a soloist and octet) to be played. Jubilus (2003) – for viola and an ensemble of violin, cello, flute, harp, trumpet, contrabass clarinet, guitar and percussion – is an elaborate work of Eastern influence and includes allusions to chant and meditative chimes, the viola being generously lyrical and taking flight – almost literally come a moment that reminded of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending – and, yet, there seemed, on a first hearing, some discursive moments and scoring, not least the composer’s use of live instruments to recreate electronic sounds – the cellist is required, at a couple of points, to bow the instrument with what looked like a comb. A red one! The guitar seemed underused and the composer’s anticipated playing-time of 14 minutes was actually 10.

The 22-minute Song Offerings (1985), setting four poems of Tagore, love-related, seemed music half that length in its heightened atmosphere and often-radiant sounds; the instruments being string quartet plus double bass, piano, flute/alto flute, and clarinet. At the end of the third song, a pastoral atmosphere was established, and again reminded of Vaughan Williams; elsewhere the expectancy, rapture and yearning of Harvey’s writing compelled the air. Both works were given excellent performances, Vicci Wardman being rich-toned and Claire Booth naturally communicative.

Which is more than Gil Shaham was in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, someone who should only be listened to. This was superb violin-playing, as such. While one could suggest the frenetic coda to the first movement was forced rather than organic, that the slow movement was rather studied, and the finale was all about technique and getting around the notes at too fast a pace, it was Shaham’s distracting and irritating platform manner that was his undoing. His nonchalance is perturbing, too; he rarely seemed to be playing for the audience. Indeed this was more a love-in with Dohnányi (Shaham making the overtures, although they seem to get on very well); and when he wasn’t nestling up to the conductor he was moving here, there and everywhere, almost pre-programmed, and grimacing. Very unbecoming, and not really related to his playing, for this was a pretty straightforward account of such familiar music.

Once past an unsettled exposition – the first violins didn’t quite get the opening bars together (but all was fine in the repeat) – the ‘Pastoral’ was wholly engrossing. Bracing in the first movement and buoyantly flowing in the ‘Scene by the Brook’, Dohnányi then drove the Peasants along, whipped up a fine storm (Andrew Smith very fine with the timpani’s thunder) and then led an especially blissful account of the finale, fully aware of its transcending capability. If tempos were forward-moving, there was no rush; indeed this was a diverting and engrossing performance, one beautifully played (outstanding oboe and horn contributions) and with antiphonal violins always illuminating; a rendition of integrity, strength and modulation.

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