United Kingdom Beethoven, Brahms: Arabella Steinbacher (violin), David Afkham (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Southbank Centre, London, 6.12.2012 (JFL)
Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Violin Concerto
Brahms: Symphony No.3
The Philharmonia Orchestra put on two shows while I stayed in London: the Kurt Sanderling Centenary Concert (a Beethoven-Brahms program with prior outings in Leicester and Bedford) and a Prokofiev-Tchaikovsky night the following Saturday. Preferring contemporary performers, I skipped the Lorin Maazel-led concert and missed, by trustworthy accounts, a sad performance of the Second Prokofiev Violin Concerto with the rapidly declining Vadim Repin and then an incandescent Tchaikovsky “Pathétique”. I did catch the Sanderling concert, though, with two very much contemporary performers: conductor David Afkham and violinist Arabella Steinbacher.
Afkham is the 2010 Kit-Kat* Conductor, which is to say the winner of the first Nestlé Young Conductors Award that is now handed out annually in cooperation with the Salzburg Festival. That explained the presence of Mitsuko Uchida for the first half; checking on the young man she helped pick as a then-member of the jury. Afkham is certainly the most successful and the most promising of the winners so far, and his career is fully under way with the finest and most prestigious orchestras on his conducting itinerary. Now among them also the Philharmonia which he conducted that Thursday at the Royal Festival Hall, opening with a snappy, detailed and elegant Beethoven Coriolan Overture.
Serge Dorny, Intendant of the Lyon opera and former artistic director, compared the Philharmonia to the transparent sound of a Pleyel piano. Or a vintage Bechstein, now with Salonen’s influence added to that of Christoph von Dohnányi… in any case, there’s a lean luxuriousness to the sound which was a pleasure to hear not only in the Beethoven but also the ensuing Brahms Third Symphony, the trickiest of the Brahms symphonies. Forcing this impassioned music is tempting… but trying to add anything only taketh away. Afkham resisted much—but not all—of his temptation, going about his Brahms-duties just a touch headlong at first, then slow enough in the subsequent movements as if to make for youthful impetuousness earlier, until topping it off with a bold finale.
L.v.Beethoven (& Berg), Violin Concerto(s),
A.Steinbacher / A.Nelsons /
After intermission the ever elegant Arabella Steinbacher took the stage with her ex-Settembrini Stradivari, and a mission of Beethoven. That Beethoven violin concerto was pristine and concentrated, grounded in the particularly beautiful low register of her instrument if, on this occasion, without grit. Clearly delineated, rhythmically structured, meticulous with a bit of German rigor and determination, it appealed to all the senses but the heart, leaving one with admiration of great beauty. There might arguably be such a thing as too beautiful, but great beauty does go a long way. The Kreisler cadenza was performed as if by Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffmann, except that Steinbacher didn’t fall to bits after finishing her entrancing feats. Only in the last cadenza did she let her (immaculate) hair down. Just in time for the enthusiastic bravos of the easily excited London audience. The orchestra hared back to the clean sound of the overture; a little thicker this time and splendidly in unison for the opening of the second movement.
Jens F. Laurson
* One might make note that in US Kit Kat is produced (under license) by Hershey; everywhere else by Nestlé.
Select recordings (and biography) of Kurt Sanderling: