Sokhiev and the Philharmonia: A Musical Game of Two Halves

13/12/2013

 Mendelssohn, Mahler: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Anastasia Kalagina (soprano), Philharmonia Orchesta, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.12.2013 (GDn)

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor
Mahler: Symphony No. 4

 

This concert was the proverbial game of two halves: a Mendelssohn Violin Concerto wholly lacking in enthusiasm, commitment and…well, anything very much, followed by a Mahler Four of genuine insight and originality.

I’ve not heard Viktoria Mullova before, but her reputation precedes her, and it must surely be based on performances better than this one. There was nothing technically wrong with her performance, but for one of the great Romantic concertos it was curiously lacking in emotion. To her credit, Mullova projects an identity through her playing and ensures that what she does is always distinctive. Her programme bio tells us she’s a part-time ‘HIPster’, which may explain the strict economy she applies to her rubato. Her tone is always focussed, and projects the line well, but it rarely sings. And she has a different timbre in each register: a viola-like richness at the bottom, a more nasal sound in the middle, and a thin, reedy whine at the top. Delicacy is her key virtue in the Mendelssohn: nothing is ever laid on thick and melodic lines are suggested rather than stated emphatically. But it doesn’t add up to a coherent interpretation, and it almost always lacks warmth.

That’s not to say Mullova was the only culprit here. Conductor Tugan Sokhiev communicated poorly with her throughout, and straightjacketed the orchestra into an inflexible and angular reading that neither they nor Mullova ever sounded comfortable with. Occasionally, she would attempt to free up the tempo, in the coda to the first movement for example, where she made every effort to accelerate into the final cadence. But it was no good; she just got further and further ahead of the metronomic beat, Sokhiev always refusing to yield. Predictably, the orchestra lacked motivation here, and the textures in the ensemble were muddy and indistinct throughout the concerto. For all his rigour, Sokhiev also failed to make the work cohere, leading to many awkward transitions and tempo shifts.

Fortunately, the second half of the concert was a completely different story. Or rather, everything that Sokhiev had done in the first half to the detriment of the Mendelssohn – his austerity, brutally imposed tempo changes, and curious orchestral balances – came together in the Mahler to produce a meaningful and engaging interpretation. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is something of a virtuoso showpiece for the conductor, with all sorts of paradoxes to resolve on the hoof (just look at the tempo change on the first page of the score). Sokhiev appeared throughout the concert as a conductor used to getting his way by heavy coercion, by dictatorship from the podium. This score benefits from that approach, because if the conductor knows the music well and knows where he is going with it – Sokhiev clearly knows both – then the problematic ambiguities of tempo and form that the work throws up can be overcome.

Sokhiev is clearly very interested in the details of Mahler’s orchestration, the held horn chords, for example, that often underpin woodwind ensembles, or the way that a violin line will be given an earthy and rustic-sounding conclusion by suddenly switching to the violas before the cadence. And the Philharmonia responded well to his analytical approach, bringing out all those colourful details, and without ever exaggerating them to the point of pedantry. The woodwinds yet again showed themselves to be the crowning glory of this orchestra, presenting all manner of intricacy and detail in both their ensembles and their solos.

Soprano Anastasia Kalagina is the ideal collaborator for Sokhiev’s Mahler. Her tone is narrow but focussed, clear and with only a very slight vibrato, and she always brings the words to the fore. She gave the sort of performance that combined beautifully with the detail Sokhiev was drawing from the woodwinds behind her, both she and they presenting intimate but never pale colours, shaped through deeply expressive phrasing.

This still wasn’t an ideal performance though, and although they were not as evident, some of Sokhiev’s flaws in the Mendelssohn carried over into the Mahler. His tempos were often stiff  – something Mahler himself considered fatal to performances of his music – and the orchestra often seemed to be hectored into compliance through emphatic cues and an unyielding baton technique. Also, Sokhiev had the same communication problems with Kalagina that he had previously had with Mullova, a reluctance to follow her phrasing and a reluctance to give her the space she needed to perform as a soloist. But in this work it is the conductor’s vision that matters, and Sokhiev clearly has one; an understanding of the symphony’s curious proportions and of the story that Mahler is trying to tell. With just a little more empathy for his colleagues, Sokhiev could have given a truly great performance of the score this evening, but even while jealously clutching the reins of power, he still produced a very fine one.

Gavin Dixon

 

 

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