The Royal Philharmonic Society’s Bicentennial Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Brahms: Akiko Suwanai (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.1. 2013 (CC)

Mendelssohn Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dvořák Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53
Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

The first meeting of the Royal Philharmonic Society was on January 24, 1813, exactly 200 years ago to the day of this concert. All three composers in the present programme were associated with the Society. Indeed, Mendelssohn conducted his A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture at the Argyll Rooms. The present performance under the young Ossetian conductor, Tugan Sokhiev held much to enjoy, from gossamer strings to beautifully tuned and balanced woodwind. The celebratory aspects of the music, too, were viscerally projected. Perhaps only the humour of the donkey impressions – the large interval signifying that animal’s call – was underplayed. Klemperer, in his justly famous recording of the Overture from the early 1960’s had these to perfection (his recording included the complete incidental music, with soloists Janet Baker and Arleen Auger). Under Sokhiev, though there were occasional slight issues with timings in the strings these were not enough to detract from a most pleasant performance.

Suwanai’s Philips recording of the Dvořák, when it was issued in 2001, shot straight to the top of my list for this piece (review). While the present Philharmonia performance was excellent, it did not quite scale those giddy heights. What it did reveal, though, was a strong rapport between Suwanai and Sokhiev. The Philharmonia blazed for its conductor, balancing Sowanai’s evocative, rhapsodic musings, her tone beautifully deep low down, tensile high up. No surprise, therefore, that the central Adagio ma non troppo held darkly veiled playing from the soloist – tremendous bow control, and some wonderfully dramatic octaves in the movement’s central section – as well as some forest-evoking gestures from the two horns towards the very end. The finale’s light, dancing opening was noteworthy in its sense of true communication between soloist and orchestra. Dvořák’s tricky writing posed no problems for Suwanai. A most enjoyable account, followed by a brief encore in the shape of some luminous Bach: the Largo from the Third Sonata, BWV1005.

It was, however, the Brahms that held the real surprise. Any sense of going through the motions was well and truly absent. This was a glorious, powerful account of a work that threatened one’s sense of familiarity. The large string section (including eight double-basses) was fully able to accord the opening’s full weight; more impressive still was the unstoppable trajectory of the ensuing Allegro. The oboe solos (Christopher Cowie) were little short of magnificent in the Andante sostenuto. Tenderness was to the forefront here, while flow coupled with a core of strength characterised the third movement. The finale’s initial explorations of darker regions – magnificently primeval horns – began a journey that culminated in a phenomenal lead-in to the work’s coda, the intensity perfectly timed. Crowned by resplendent brass, this was a performance to cherish.

Colin Clarke