Philharmonia Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev with Akiko Suwanai – Royal Philharmonic Society Bicentenary Concert

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Akiko Suwanai (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 24 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Tugan Sokhiev. ©Patrice NinFounded in January 1813, the Philharmonic Society – it became the Royal Philharmonic Society a century later – set out amongst its original objectives “to promote the performance in the most perfect manner”. If any of its founders were looking down, one suspects they would have been well pleased, indeed astonished at the quality of this Gala Concert. The bust of Beethoven, recipient of £50 from the Society for his ‘Choral’ Symphony, looked balefully down on proceedings from the edge of the stage.

Mendelssohn conducted the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Society’s orchestra at the Argyll Rooms, so it made for the most appropriate of openers. There was much to admire from the perfectly poised woodwind chording at the outset, the warmth and blend of the strings throughout and the most eloquent of epilogues with the violins’ final arching benediction ushered in by Richard Hosford’s clarinet which almost seemed to say “yes, it was all a dream”. Especially admirable was the way in which the music’s poise and tongue-in-cheek sense were held in perfect equilibrium.

Akiko Suwanai. Photograph ©Universal Music / Martin RichardsonDvořák did not conduct his Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic Society (although he did the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies with it) but the work was performed in London at a Philharmonic Society concert by the original Czech soloist with Arthur Sullivan as conductor. Akiko Suwanai, playing on Heifetz’s ‘Dolphin’ Stradivarius, produced a particularly grateful sound, an important plus in such rhapsodic music in which the soloist is seldom silent. She enjoyed the closest of rapport with Tugan Sokhiev and soloists within the orchestra, notably Katy Woolley on horn. In the slow movement there was a real ‘ache’ in the little duet from flute and oboe. Perhaps the Furiant finale’s cross-rhythms would have benefited from a slightly less headlong tempo (it is marked ‘ma non troppo’) but it was all very exciting. There was an encore in the form of the Largo from J. S. Bach’s Sonata in C (BWV1005) for unaccompanied violin.

Brahms was initially inclined to let the first UK performance of his C minor Symphony go to Cambridge. The Philharmonic Society, always alive to the importance of the latest music, had other ideas and it was duly heard in London in April 1877. There is a peculiar notion that only conductors reared in the Germanic tradition can conduct Brahms. Not so. Paavo Berglund was a great conductor of Brahms’s music and Sokhiev’s energised account was similarly impressive. Reviews frequently pick up on details whilst ignoring the larger picture and failing to grasp what is right. Conceded that the finale’s chorale when returned in the coda was unduly distended but much that had preceded it was undoubtedly notable. For a start the patience with which Sokhiev approached the work, understating the very opening (it’s marked f not ff), understanding that when Brahms writes agitato it doesn’t necessarily mean faster, and producing a genuine molto dolce from the strings where it is marked. Also, if one can hear the rising trombone arpeggio at the finale’s climactic moment – you could here – then painstaking preparation has been undertaken.

The Philharmonia Orchestra covered itself in glory, producing the most cultivated of blends. Only the Andante sostenuto was slightly protracted as though a need were felt to turn it into a full-blown slow movement but even this was redeemed by some outstanding individual contributions, from oboist Christopher Cowie and leader Andrew Haveron; this movement’s final chord, gently warmed by the addition of the contrabassoon, was weighted to a tee. This was a concert fully worthy of a special occasion.

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