Philharmonia Orchestra/Sokhiev Akiko Suwanai [Debussy, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky]

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Akiko Suwanai (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 November, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Tugan Sokhiev. ©Patrice NinIt is profoundly satisfying to hear a major orchestra giving its all. This is not to pretend that there were not occasional blemishes – as Brahms said in a different context, “Any fool can see that” – but, set against playing of this overall conviction, the few minor lapses only served to highlight that taken as a whole this concert was the antithesis of routine.

After an early unexpected exit from Welsh National Opera nearly a decade ago at the very outset of his career, for much of the intervening period Tugan Sokhiev’s profile has been slightly lower than merited. Commendably though, the Philharmonia Orchestra stuck with him. Recently he has made successful debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and is now Music Director Designate of Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Undemonstrative to a point, Sokhiev has a rare ability to get an orchestra to listen to itself, refining dynamics and obtaining a certainty of musical purpose which goes well beyond mere surface unanimity.

The Tchaikovsky symphony which crowned the programme spoke volumes for Sokhiev’s refined approach. This was slow-burn Tchaikovsky – the initial fanfare was decidedly restrained as was the whole first paragraph of the moderato con anima. However, this conscious understatement paid rich dividends. Tellingly, even at its climaxes the symphony completely avoided hysteria and felt as string-dominated as its two successors. Rather than living for the moment, the opening movement flowed forward in large cohesive paragraphs and its two major climaxes were rammed home to tremendous effect, leaving no doubt as to where the jugular lay.

Even more impressive however were the last three movements. The Andantino’s pervasive “Onegin”-like melancholy – blue frost hanging in the air in the stillness of an Autumn morning – was acutely distilled. Here all four woodwind principals – especially Gordon Hunt (oboe) and Robin O’Neill (bassoon) – covered themselves in glory and inner string detail frequently obscured in more demonstrative readings emerged freshly minted. The elegantly nuanced pizzicato scherzo was touched in with the lightest hand, but with precisely observed dynamics which led the ear ever forward, keeping the music constantly aloft and creating the illusion of even greater speed. The finale, played straight at a tempo which allowed for clean articulation rather than being rushed off its feet, sounded anything but vulgar; for once it seemed the logical counterpart to the opening movement so that when the motto-theme recurred – here taken very broadly – it had all the force of running into a brick wall at speed.

Akiko Suwanai. Photograph ©Universal Music / Martin RichardsonThe evening’s first half was similarly refined, an elegantly turned flute solo from Paul Edmund-Davies opened the Debussy, which was given a suitably langorous reading but with eddies of sudden volatility, and the most perfectly voiced account of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto from Akiko Suwanai who plays the ‘Dolphin’ Stradivarius previously owned by Heifetz. Prokofiev’s concerto – separated by 30 years from its predecessor – dates from 1935, and inhabits the world of the near contemporaneous ballet-score Romeo and Juliet. Its composition saw Prokofiev start work in Paris, continue in the Caucasian town of Voronezh, complete the orchestration in Baku and the work received its premiere in Madrid!

Suwanai was at her best in her poised account of the marvellous theme which opens the Andante assai central movement after which the first violins stole in like a corps de ballet en pointe. In the first movement the contrasts between freewheeling lyricism and gritty aggression drew a rather too controlled response but as to the stunning account of the finale’s lolloping moto perpetuo there were no doubts.

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