Nightride and Sunrise, Op.55
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Christoph von Dohnányi
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 24 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
The Philharmonia’s opening concert of the season began inauspiciously and by the interval I was seriously wondering about the amount of rehearsal time that had been available.
All credit to Dohnányi and the orchestra for tacking the Sibelius, which is something of a rarity in terms of concert performances, but neither conductor nor players captured that elusive, quintessential Sibelian quality. In any event, the sunrise was more secure then the ride, which was a distinctly rocky one, with some untidy strings and a general lack of cumulative tension. Later on there was some effectively plaintive woodwind – especially memorable in their imitations of bird song – and the strings towards the end – supported by sonorous brass – providedsome glowing playing. Yet there was a curiously tentative feeling about the whole and the piece felt somehow more ’sectional’ than it ought.
The first two movements of Brahms’s concerto were efficiently dispatched by all concerned. Frank Peter Zimmermann is technically highly proficient, and projects a warm and powerful tone. In terms of insight, however, neither he nor Dohnányi had much to offer. The first movement began broadly, and the important dotted-note figure in the strings made for a strong introduction to the soloist’s first entry, which was authoritative and firm. In his initial statement of the movement’s opening theme, Zimmermann deployed a degree of portamento that seemed rather self-conscious and unconvincing. It was a device he employed throughout at certain points – presumably designed to heighten expression. Effective as the playing – and conducting – were, there was nevertheless a want of animation and vigour, whilst certain important key transitions were approached in a decidedly perfunctory manner.
The slow movement was distinguished by some expressive oboe playing, marred in effect by an obtrusive bassoon and horn accompaniment. Zimmermann soared above serenely, and the orchestra responded accordingly, but the music, which can – and should – sound ethereal remained distinctly earthbound. With the ’Finale’, however, things started to come to life. There was a welcome sense of energy and intent, and Zimmermann’s twists and turns conveyed infectious enjoyment. There were some delightfully chirpy moments from the woodwinds, and the important accented notes were properly marked without being overly exaggerated.
Remaining cobwebs having been blown away, we were given a thoughtful and purposeful reading of Brahms 4. Herbert von Karajan once drew attention to the fact that there are very few works in the symphonic repertoire which end in “utter tragedy” and cited Mozart’s 40th and Mahler’s 6th symphonies, along with the 4th symphonies of Sibelius and Brahms. Here, there was no lack of dark-hued tone and a feeling of resignation throughout. Thematic material was presented in a forthright way and its development delineated with clarity. Indeed there were several points during this performance when I was reminded of how much Schoenberg admired Brahms – and I do not mean that in any disparaging way.
There was much to admire in the orchestral playing. Well-disciplined as ever, the strings played with unanimity, and the double basses provided a very firm and full-throated foundation to the whole. Perhaps one or two details of dynamics were given more than their due, but there was an inexorable sense of building towards the coda which was powerful indeed. The second movement was taken at a properly flowing tempo (the marking is ’Andante moderato’) but there was little sense of repose or ease, and the triplet climax was forcefully hammered home. Dohnányi played up the ’giocoso’ element of the third movement which glittered as it should, without detracting from the sense of stoic determination. There was a dance-like character in places, with perky woodwind and sparkling piccolo. The winds, incidentally, were doubled throughout the symphony.
Powerful, yet not brash, trombones heralded the ‘Finale’ and the great passacaglia theme. Here again, there was a sense of doom. The central episode with a solo flute pining Bach-like was poignancy itself, and the trombones were solemn and poised in the expressive passage that follows. Repose was not permitted for long, and the symphony was driven inexorably towards its tragic conclusion.