Philharmonia Bring Classical Grace and Romantic Charm to Canterbury

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms: Juho Pohlonen (piano), Philharmonia, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 7.2.2014. (CS)

Beethoven: Leonore overture No.1,
Mozart: Piano Concerto in C Major (K.467)
Brahms: Second Symphony.

It’s been a busy few days for conductor Nicholas Collon and the Philharmonia Orchestra: four concerts in four days in four venues. After visiting Coventry and Bedford, and following a lauded performance of music by Britten, Vaughan Williams and Adès at the Southbank Centre on Thursday, Friday evening found the orchestra at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury for an evening of Classical grace and Romantic charm.

The Philharmonia and Collon had to work hard to achieve their very satisfying results, however.  The demi-sec acoustic of the re-furbished theatre (which re-opened in October 2011) – and the towering black drapes which enclosed the stage – threatened to take the gleam off their brightness and dilute the incisiveness of the players’ attack.

The opening work, Beethoven’s Leonore overture No.1, was pleasingly crafted and sweet of tone but Collon did not fully sustain a sense of dramatic energy and forward movement.  Although written at the same time as Beethoven’s Fidelio, the overture was in fact not performed as a preface to the opera during Beethoven’s life-time, rejected by the composer as being too light-weight and insufficiently representative of the expressive dramas to follow.  Despite this, in the tense, sombre introductory section, Collon did establish an anticipatory mood, slowly lifting the strings from their lower ranges and effectively controlling the acceleration to the principal theme.  Between this melody and its reprise, Beethoven looked ahead, in a brief Adagio, to Florestan’s Act 2 aria (‘In des Lebens Frühlingstagen’), and here the Philharmonia’s string section blossomed in tone even if they did not quite soar with the full, rich radiance of springtime.  The closing section was fittingly buoyant and full of hope.

In Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major (K.467) soloist Juho Pohlonen was the embodiment of cool composure.  Particularly impressive were the young Finnish pianist’s neat, expressive ornamentations and tight trills – a model of Classical refinement.  This is, however, a work of breadth and grandeur.  In the first movement, after a somewhat unassuming entry, interrupting the orchestra’s exposition, Pohlonen brought intensity to the expressive minor key passages, especially the passionate climax to the development section.  Animated and crisp in the more imitative passages, the pianist shaped the contrapuntal lines sharply, characterising the varied and inventive figuration, as Collon encouraged the players to engage in a dancing dialogue with the solo piano.

The well-known second movement was serene but also expansive.  Pohlonen’s cantilena melody did not always ‘sing’ quite as it might have done, but it was elegantly etched – the arching leap between registers seamlessly sewn – above the soothing, ceaseless triplet accompaniment and muted pizzicati.  Permitted to join the piano in long-breathed legato lines, the muted violins lacked a truly warm glow but were polished and genteel.

In the concluding rondo there was some superb woodwind playing, especially from oboes and bassoons whose reedy tone cut through more readily.  A little more extroversion might have added a dash of light wit, but overall this was an assured and unfailingly charming, poised performance; if at times it was little understated, then the air of discreetness and emotional restraint no doubt owed more to the acoustical challenges of the theatre than to any lack of commitment by the performers.

With the piano removed, their ranks augmented and the orchestra re-positioned at the fore-front of the stage platform, a fresh vividness and greater variety of texture and dynamics was found in an eloquent reading of Brahms’s Second Symphony.  Collon drew forth the bucolic enchantment of the work – which contemporary observers referred to as Brahms’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony, in the spirit of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony – though paid heed also to the shadows which cast a darker hue on the predominantly major-key sunniness: the Adagio in particular was reflective and plaintive in mood.

Brahms himself preferred to emphasise not the work’s ‘regressive’ qualities but its lyricism, writing to Hanslick, ‘The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one’; yet  Collon thoughtfully underlined the way in which the work’s undisputed assuredness is disturbed by uncertainties, particularly as expressed through rhythmical ambiguities and conflicts.  From the first bars of the Allegro non troppo, the conductor enjoyed exploring the metrical complexities, as the stresses constantly shifted and slithered, demonstrating a commanding appreciation of form; moreover, he drew expressive colours from the brass section – there was much wonderful playing by first horn, Nigel Black – used sparingly by Brahms but contributing significantly to the ‘lights and shadows’ of the symphony.  The magisterial elegance of the impeccable string ensemble was complemented by the freedom of the instrumental solos, the ringing tones of Ken Smith’s flute bringing the pastoral element to the fore.

In the second movement, the sighing cello phrases which open the long Adagio were beautifully shaped and the brooding quality was pleasingly enhanced by the counter-melody of the bassoons.  The restlessness arising from the tonal instability of the movement is complemented by Brahms’s use of counterpoint and varied textures, and Collon made the most of such tensions, as when a simple pizzicato bass line supports the woodwinds’ flowing melody creating two sharply contrasting ideas.

The short third movement possessed both elegance and unpredictability, Collon once more subtly crafting the unpredictably nuances of meter and tempo in this intermezzo.  At the start, the lilting oboe theme was insouciantly accompanied by pizzicato celli, and throughout the instrumentalists were alert to Brahms’s precise and sometimes surprising articulations.

In the concluding Allegro con spirito Collon and his players mastered the score’s multifarious syncopations, the conductor controlling the complex displacements in the accompaniment lines and allowing the motivic elements to shine through.  The final moments of the symphony may not have had a spine-tingling éclat but the autumnal mood of the closing bars, in which the rousing melody encapsulates the essence of the whole work, was satisfyingly triumphant.

Claire Seymour