Prom 67: Dohnányi at Play

Till Eulenspiegel
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The final week of the Proms, which affords a snap shot of the state of four of the five London Symphony Orchestras (a week, unusually, without international visitors), opened with Christoph von Dohnányi bringing his Philharmonia Orchestra to the Proms for only the second time since becoming Principal Conductor in 1997 (in 2000 Slatkin came with them; last year Renée Fleming and Eschenbach). It was certainly good to see him back on the Albert Hall platform.

As for his final Cleveland Orchestra performances as Music Director at the Barbican in June, Dohnányi is as clear-sighted as ever in how he wants his performances to sound: no unfussy interpretative interpolations, just fidelity to the score. For some this sounds emotionally bland, but I revel in hearing what composer’s ask for, and – as here – scores suddenly sound new.

That Dohnányi seems to have mellowed was apparent in the opening work, a spirited, almost impish performance of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, with the Philharmonia players (including no less than four percussionists with football rattles – a humorous exception to Dohnányi’s fidelity to the printed score: Strauss asks for one!) revelling in Strauss’s musical characterisations. Often this vast orchestral pantomime can seem laboured and hackneyed. Not here, and Dohnányi risked some wry smiles along the way.

I warmed equally to the Beethoven concerto and Dvořák symphony.Emanuel Ax was typically precise in his enormously satisfying assumption of the solo part, managing to keep his concentration through the hugely disruptive barrage of coughing (particularly in the slow movement), while the slimmed-down Philharmonia offered secure support. I was taken by surprise by the first movement cadenza – stated to be by Beethoven but much more robust than I had remembered, which Ax played for all it was worth. Bravo!

Dohnányi’s non-interventionist approach suited Dvořák’s delightful work exceedingly well, the Philharmonia on fine form with its Principal Conductor.I hope that Dohnányi will be constant conductor from the Philharmonia’s annual Prom from now on – it is a partnership that is helping to bring London’s orchestral life back into the very highest league.

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