Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen Alban Gerhardt

Overture Namensfeier, Op.115
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Alban Gerhardt (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 May, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThis matinee concert took place on the eve of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s departure for Japan where it will be touring two programmes with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the main works being Sibelius 2 and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Sibelius 2 has recently received more than its fair share of performances from the Philharmonia – under Pletnev, Maazel and Segerstam. However, occasionally, even in music as familiar as this, one hears something out of the ordinary as was undoubtedly the case here.

Rather as with Beethoven’s 5th, Sibelius’s Second Symphony will almost invariably impress on a certain level, success as it were inbuilt. However what was particularly impressive about this performance was the subtlety of conception combined with an exceptional polish to its execution. Whether or not one agrees with a particular concept of a work, it is hard not to respond when – as here – something is delivered with an unusual degree of conviction.

Restraint might be thought to be low on the list of priorities in a work which to all intents and purposes could be considered Finland’s other National Anthem but on this occasion the very absence of exaggeration paid rich dividends, the first movement’s arch of intensity building an unostentatious but formidable momentum, the slow movement observed from afar as though in a dream and the linked scherzo and finale an object lesson in how to manage the transition from one to the other (basically let the string build-up predominate until the last possible moment before letting the brass loose). It was also notable that the scherzo was not treated as an orchestral tour de force but was lithe and crisp, reserving the deepest emotion for the trio.

Salonen has sometimes struck one as a slightly cerebral conductor (whilst superbly controlled, a Sibelius 7 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Edinburgh Festival some years ago seemed merely bland). However, he clearly enjoys an excellent rapport with the Philharmonia, established over many years, and now as Principal Conductor the Philharmonia musicians sounded fully the great orchestra it is, with resonant strings, sophisticated winds and burnished brass. Without any sense of holding back, the work came across at full voltage, yet with never an ugly sound.

Alban Gerhardt. Photograph: albangerhardt.comDvořák’s Cello Concerto was not quite on the same level. Alban Gerhardt has many virtues, a big if occasionally slightly uningratiating sound, secure intonation and a high degree of musicality. Somehow though, despite some hauntingly beautiful wind solos and a particularly eloquent first horn, the concerto seemed closely and carefully observed rather than emerging as a vibrant living organism tugging at the heartstrings.

The opening work, Namensfeier (Name-Day), was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron Prince Radziwill and was part of a package of overtures (the others being King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens) for which the composer received 75 Guineas from the Philharmonic Society of London. Not the greatest Beethoven, Namensfeier was coolly received when first performed in London in 1816. Fortunately the Society continued to support Beethoven, later commissioning the ‘Choral’ Symphony. Here the overture received a well-honed reading, a little too suave but with elegant strings, golden horns in the introduction and with all-important distinctions between forte and fortissimo precisely observed.

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