Philharmonia Orchestra New Season

Le Corsaire – Overture, Op.21
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Till Fellner (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 September, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The opening of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s London season was one of just nine concerts the orchestra is giving with principal conductor Christoph von Dohnányi in Britain and Ireland. No wonder they couldn’t squeeze in a repeat concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall! Yet there would surely have been demand (and “Time Out” listed the concert on the following night, so there may well have been punters disappointed), as this concert – in honour of Vincent Meyer’s 20 years as the orchestra’s president – was packed.

Dohnányi – as normal – arrayed his violins antiphonally, cellos swapping with the second violins, the double basses behind cellos and first violins, over on the left. There was a concession to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a slight reduction in strings (14, 12, 10, 8 and 6), and there was no feeling of lack of space, even with the piano on for the concerto. Indeed, the stage is quite deep so it may be that (perversely) there is more room here than on the Festival Hall stage. One further concession to the new venue, Dohnányi had the curtains half-closed in front of the new wooden acoustic boards at the very back, to help tame the brass.

As the London Philharmonic had proved the week before, the sound is very immediate, and Dohnányi, without score, swashbuckled his way through Berlioz’s Le corsaire to the manner born; there was obviously a stiff breeze on the Mediterranean given he set off at quite a lick; not that his players were taken by surprise. With the material-covered lighting gantries at the side of the stage looking like sails and rigging, the only thing missing were the pirate costumes!

Things quietened down for the concerto (notwithstanding Dohnányi knocking over the principal cellists’ music stand during the orchestral introduction: both he – while still conducting – and Fellner helping to pick up the strewn parts). Fellner was as urbane soloist. Perfectly poised, he gave a musical if not particularly engaging rendition of the concerto; straight-laced might be the best phrase for it, and not necessarily the worse for it, with Dohnányi’s limpid accompaniment.

Beethoven’s fateful Fifth was also given a refreshing run-out in a fairly stiff breeze to blow out all of its cobwebs. Dohnányi is a no-nonsense conductor; he’s never wilfully emotional, he just gets down to business and presents the music as on the page, freshly minted. There is something thrilling to hear this big music in a smaller space (although I mused during the performance that the halls in which this work was originally played were probably no bigger than the Queen Elizabeth Hall). The LPO’s strap-line for its QEH sojourn is “closer to the music” and it works just as well for the Philharmonia’s admittedly bigger-boned set of concerts. Beethoven’s Fifth fitted very nicely into the space: the sound immediate, the music tangible – with hard timpani sticks, Andrew Smith made tremendous impact, even an arresting second beat stress on the final chord suggesting that a new performing tradition was being formed, while brass and horns, kept within reasonable limits, offered nicely individual timbres, as did the winds. Worries in the Berlioz that the strings might be overwhelmed were left unfounded – although it is harder to comprehend how Dutoit’s 1911 Petrushka and Salonen’s complete Firebird and Mahler 7 will cope.

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