Philharmonia Orchestra/Philippe Jordan – Nielsen & Brahms – Sergey Khachatryan plays Sibelius

Helios Overture, Op.17
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Sergey Khachatryan (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Philippe Jordan

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 25 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

I wonder if Philippe Jordan is as extravagantly physical a conductor in the opera pit – where he is much in demand – as he is on the concert platform. Those entreating gestures, the repertoire of arm movements (some of them a bit odd), fleeting and conspiratorial smiles to a particular player or section – you can’t take your eyes off of him, and you begin to wonder just how much of this power-house theatricality is strictly ballroom. Whatever, the youthful, dashing Swiss conductor clearly has a rapport with his players and exercises an impressively discerning ear, but, for all the drama of his involvement, until now this maiden hadn’t been bowled over.

The three pieces on his programme all start quietly, in the case of Nielsen’s Helios, hearing-aid-twiddlingly so. Nielsen’s atmospheric dawn-to-dusk in the Aegean is full of northern yearnings for southern paradise, vividly realised by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Jordan, shaping the pace of the groping opening bars with his bare hands before converting to rhythmic definition with his baton, evoked a splendid build-up of texture and volume that was cinematic in its magnificence – it was a pity Stanley Kubrick didn’t use this rather than Strauss’s overblown Also sprach Zarathustra for his film 2001. Just as effective as his approach to the music’s glossy zenith was Jordan’s skilful paring-down and decolourisation of the sunset, as Nielsen gradually turns the lights out. Helios’s remit is straightforward enough, but Jordan’s acute ear for detail and accumulation of power gave it a sort of mysticism that makes it one of the repertoire’s premier cru sunrises.

As for being bowled over, Jordan and Sergey Khachatryan delivered a performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto I shall long treasure, one that redefined this satisfyingly elusive, supremely romantic work. Conductor, soloist and orchestra coalesced into a perfect trinity of organically shifting allegiances that underpinned the complexity of the soloist/orchestra relationship. Jordan offered just the right degree of consistent benevolence to the violinist’s spiritual and emotional mobility, and in the tuttis paced out the music’s growth with rock-like objectivity. His 3D vision of this decidedly symphonic concerto was galvanised by the connection he had with the soloist. Khachatryan was simply stupendous. From the subliminal, colourless opening to full-on opulence of tone, he possessed and was possessed by the music, a completeness expressed in playing of hair-raising intensity and musicianship – and whether whispering or on full throttle, the sound from his Guarneri was similarly eviscerating. Khachatryan gave the developmental cadenza a special sense of withdrawal and Shostakovich-like desolation, and once again I particularly admired the benign, almost parental tact with which Jordan withdrew his support to let the soloist cope as best he may. With his gravity, extremes of intimacy, the bids for independence and comings to heel, from his exquisitely executed, minute changes of detail in repeated phrases and the ecstatic double-stopping, Khachatryan totally identified with the music, and the symbiotic partnership with Jordan was rare and powerful. His purely technical wizardry was more obviously to the fore in his Ysaÿe encore (from the Second Sonata) and very fine, but I was still in recovery position from the Sibelius.

Curiously, Brahms’s Second Symphony didn’t have the same sense of involvement. There was much to admire in Jordan’s approach, especially in his stretch-and-separate way with Brahms’s scoring, which played down the thick, sometimes hectoring sound I grew up with and which rather put me off Brahms’s orchestral works. He conjured an agreeably diaphanous sound from the strings and a wealth of civilised wind playing, especially from the excellent horn section. Formally it was secure, with a lyrical sense of an unfolding poem, but the underlying melancholy and sweet nostalgia didn’t drift out of the music as naturally as it had in the Sibelius, and the tension wavered in the very Beethovenian Adagio. The last two movements fared best, with a characteristic heft in the dances of the Allegretto and fierce rhythmic propulsion and decisive dynamic contrasts in the finale.

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