Philharmonia Orchestra/Sokhiev James Ehnes – Berlioz & Tchaikovsky

Overture – Le corsaire, Op.21
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

James Ehnes (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The Philharmonia Orchestra is to be congratulated on having stuck with Tugan Sokhiev even when his career seemed to have gone into temporary eclipse following his abrupt departure from Welsh National Opera. There can be little doubt as to his rapport with the Philharmonia; on this occasion though, especially in the symphony, the results were less than consistently satisfying.

The evening opened promisingly enough with a polished performance of Le corsaire, from which it was immediately apparent that Sokhiev has the ability to conjure forth balance and precision, even if the end result was dapper rather than genuinely fiery.

James Ehnes. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer who famously declared it unplayable and backed out of its première, although subsequently he was to play it on many occasions (as did his pupils Zimbalist, Elman and Heifetz, the latter’s all-but-forgotten 1950 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Walter Susskind is a near-perfect blend of head and heart). With the excellent Canadian James Ehnes making light of all technical difficulties, the very idea that the concerto might once have been thought to have been either unplayable or “music that stinks” (as Hanslick described it) seemed far-fetched, such was the assurance and poise on display.

With Ehnes on tip-top form, with near-faultless intonation throughout, this was an impressively projected reading that was distinctive for combining sentiment without sentimentality; this was matched by a sympathetic well-integrated accompaniment with notably fine woodwind contributions. The performance was capped by a first-movement cadenza of quite surpassing power and accomplishment. With so much to be admired why was the sum less than the parts? The answer lay in that little passage in the finale where the flute and bassoon perfectly distilled that quintessentially Tchaikovskian melancholy, showing a tenderness and vulnerability which was missing in the rest of the performance. By way of an encore Ehnes gave us a similarly assured ‘Gigue’ from Bach’s D minor Partita.

When it came to the Fifth Symphony, poise was in distinctly short supply. In their very different ways both Barbirolli and Mravinsky – to name two conductors whose live performances I vividly recall – grasped an absolutely crucial point about the symphony, namely that it is a great string piece and that if the brass ever outweigh the strings (other than at those few significant eruptive outbursts) then there is something wrong.

With Sokhiev this was a performance which superficially made most of the right noises – tempos were sensibly chosen and there were few of those irritating pullings-about – but ultimately it failed to add up precisely because any successful reading depends on a degree of restraint. Jettison that essential curb – as happened here – and each movement’s single climactic moment fails to register.

There were impressive individual contributions – a velvety clarinet in the work’s opening paragraph and again at the slow movement’s valediction as well as an agreeably subtle horn solo – added to which there was a distinctively lithe and balletic third-movement waltz, but otherwise this was a febrile emotionally indulgent reading, consistently pitched several notches too high on the decibel scale and offering little sense of the work’s stature as a great symphony. A rare disappointment from this normally impressive combination.

Besides the now all-too-common intrusive applause between movements, there was a particularly vile instance of a mobile phone interruption, here disfiguring the climax of the slow movement, its ring as loud as any domestic phone and lasting a full 15 seconds!

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