Dohnányi and the Philharmonia: Variable Performances but a Satisfying Culmination


 Strauss, Bruckner: Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano), Philharmonia, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London,  5.6. 2014 (GDn)

Strauss: Four Last Songs
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9


As the final, ethereal chord of the Bruckner’s great Adagio faded to silence at the end of this evening’s concert, somebody behind me whispered to their companion that the conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi is 84 years old. I’d never have guessed. He’s the kind of conductor who seems eternally young, always in control and always focussing his orchestra on the interpretation he has in mind. In fact, there were a few holes in this evening’s performance, and in retrospect it may be fair to blame these on a lack of vigour from the podium. In general, though, the results were serviceable, if only rarely inspired.

In the first half, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She is a real presence, and effortlessly dominates proceedings. Her performance was very “operatic”, her voice rich and vibrato-laden, her every phrase deliberate and emphatic. There was much of her trademark Sieglinde here – although thankfully little of her Anna Nicole Smith – and her grand musical gestures often seemed out of scale with Strauss’ more intimate ideas. While everything she sang was elegant, much of it lacked delicacy. So, for example, her pickup from the violin solo in the third song was a sudden switch from introverted nuance to big, brassy tones. That impression was amplified by the sheer quality of the violin solo, from Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay; the horn solo by Katy Wooley in the previous song also deserves a mention. In general though, Westbroek provided a Struassian rendition, but one that would have been more at home in Salome or Elektra than here.

The originally advertised programme for this concert began with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture and ended with Mahler’s First Symphony. The reasons for replacing both with Bruckner’s Ninth were not stated, and were perhaps down to a whim of the conductor. If so, concessions can certainly be made, given his advancing years. He has some experience with Bruckner’s symphonies, especially with the Cleveland Orchestra, but for London audiences his relationship with this composer comes as news. His reading of the Ninth was focussed and dynamic – not to labour the point, but impressively dynamic for his age. It was a little rough round the edges, and not everything worked, but there was enough great music making here to make it worthwhile. Dohnányi had clearly focussed his rehearsal time on certain key passages, and at many of the important structural junctures, clear lines came shining through in the strings or woodwinds, leading the way into the following section. He adopted a wide range of tempos, usually sticking to his guns once a section was in progress and rarely shaping phrases with overt rubato. But accelerandos often went from very slow to very fast in a short space of time, and the tuttis they prepared tended to be very loud. So loud, in fact, that the players often lost control of their tone, especially the brass section.

The Scherzo was on the fast side, and the sense of propulsion that Dohnányi injected made up for a lack of punch in the accents. In fact, this happened throughout the symphony, with Dohnányi looking for weight and power from his players but never quite finding it. Some of the orchestral playing was sloppy, especially the ensemble in the tuttis. In one, near the end of the first movement, it sounded briefly as if the whole thing was about to fall apart. But the quality of the playing came and went. The opening of the Scherzo sounded reasonable the first time round, but by the time the Da Capo came around, they had regained their form and the contrast between the two renditions was striking.

Fortunately, the final Adagio worked better. Dohnányi again adopted a wide range of tempos, some, but not all, on the fast side. But now the players did everything he wanted of them, and the unity of ensemble, especially in the strings focused and directed the long, lyrical lines. It seemed throughout the symphony, and in the Strauss too, that Dohnányi   was looking for a more direct and open sound than the orchestra were used to, but in the Adagio he and they found the ideal middle ground. And the final passages were sublime, both the flute solo and the Wagner tuba chorale emphatic and clear, but also nuanced and finely balanced. The whole concert seemed to be a journey towards this point, it was just a shame that it only really came together at the very end.

Gavin Dixon



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  1. Alexander Hall says:

    No, it wasn’t on a whim of the conductor that the original programme was changed, but in order to prepare the ground for one of the two appearances of the Philharmonia at this summer’s Salzburg Festival, which is staging a cycle of all the Bruckner symphonies. Dohnanyi has previously conducted Bruckner with this orchestra, most recently No. 4 (which was also recorded for Signum). By the way, Katy Woolley spells her name with two ‘l’s, and I would have thought that Gavin Dixon would have been aware of how long Dohnanyi has graced concert platforms all over the world. He hasn’t just emerged from the woodwork! One final point: it never ceases to amaze me that some critics detect “sloppy” orchestral playing and ensemble issues which amazingly completely fail to register with other critics reviewing the self-same concert.

  2. Edward Zaum says:

    What an astonishingly ill-informed review.

    It’s absolutely bizarre to state that Dohnanyi and Bruckner are new to London. They’ve been performing Bruckner symphonies together for well in excess of a decade. Worse than that is the writers obvious unfamiliarity with Bruckner’s 9th. It doesn’t wash to write nonsense like “he adopted a wide range of tempos” – all conductors do – and nor meaningless rubbish like “the scherzo was on the fast side” – they’re supposed to be. A touch of musical criticism rather than generic and pointless word building would have given the review greater grounds to be taken seriously than is currently the case.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Well said, Edward. Not for the first time would I seriously question the qualifications of some of the people reviewing concerts on this website. I once felt it necessary to write to the Editor, complaining about one contributor (I will spare his blushes) who had been sent to review a Proms concert and who then proceeded to savage the main work so severely that it made a mockery of the other comments he had to make. Note to all reviewers: keep an open mind before you go to any concert and for heaven’s sake leave all your prejudices and set-in-stone opinions about repertory and interpreters at home.

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