RPO/Michalakis Eva Johansson

Siegfried Idyll
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Eva Johansson (soprano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Nicholas Michalakis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 March, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

This splendid concert was a humbling reminder in our spin-obsessed age that celebrity is not everything. Although he has previously worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Nicholas Michalakis is hardly a household name. On the evidence of this programme he is a first-rate musician of unfailingly sensitive instincts who deserves the widest possible recognition and who, in common with ‘Freddy’ Flintoff’s captaincy of the England cricket team in India, has that rare ability to lead from the front yet allow his players sufficient space so that they give of their very best.

Siegfried Idyll (with a reduced string band) was immediately noticeable for its restrained dynamics, warm finely balanced string-playing and the way each paragraph breathed naturally, the climax built with the patient care of a master craftsman, its ending especially memorable as this tender intimate music receded into silence.

“Wesendonck-Lieder”, Wagner’s other intimate masterpiece, also received the most sensitive of orchestral accompaniments, particularly in the ‘Tristan’-related third song ‘Im Treibhaus’ (In the Hothouse). Unfortunately the Danish soprano Eva Johansson, who has appeared at Bayreuth, was not at her best. Her forthcoming engagements include “Elektra” at the inauguration of a new opera house in Copenhagen and she tackled Wagner’s musical love-letter to Matthilde Wesendonck as if she were already singing that role – much was too loud and there was a dearth of true legato.

The Brahms, played with the same number of strings as Siegfried Idyll, received an impressively satisfying performance. Internal balances were precisely calibrated – there was never an ugly sound, not even from the trombones. If any modern performance could give an impression of what Fritz Steinbach’s original Meiningen performances with an orchestra roughly the same size ‘might’ have sounded like, this was it.

Without any recourse to interpretative point-scoring, Michalakis ensured that Brahms’s symphony glowed warmly and that each paragraph eliding seamlessly into the next. Michalakis’s tempos were expansive in the first two movements, relaxed in the third and exuberant but not over-hasty in the finale. One might criticise Michalakis for not taking the first movement repeat (I don’t on this occasion) and his complete lack of fuss – he conducts the orchestra, not the audience – was admirable. His conducting the entire concert from memory wasn’t for show, either, and I have seldom heard a more musical rendering of this symphony.

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