Grand Opening to the Swansea Festival in Refurbished Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Mendelssohn: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Karl-Heinz Steffans (conductor, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 4.10.2014 (LJ). 

 Beethoven: Overture: Leonore No. 3.
 Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor.
 Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor.


After its extensive revamp the Brangwyn Hall opened its doors to an expectant audience for the opening night of this year’s Swansea Festival. With a programme consisting of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and infamous Fifth Symphony, and Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Grandiose seems a somewhat muted adjective to describe the musical furore that erupted from the Philharmonia Orchestra. Leaving the audience agog (even a double-bassist dropped his bow at one point), the orchestra erupted in response to conductor’s Karl-Heinz Steffens’ baton.

Though maestro Christoph von Dohnanyi had to withdraw from the evening’s performance due to sudden illness, Steffens was a more than worthy substitute. As the solo clarinettist for the Berlin Philharmonic from 2001 to 2007, Steffens was particularly attentive to the wind section of the Philharmonia. Of particular excellence was flautist Samuel Coles, oboist Gordon Hunt and bassoonist Robin O’Neill.

The most popular of four overtures Beethoven wrote for the opera which was to become known as Fidelio is the third, and was first performed on March 29th 1806. It is different from the Fidelio Overture of 1814 in that the later work makes no attempt at a précis of the entire opera. The third Leonore overture alludes to specific themes which appear later in the work. Adding a touch of theatricality to the evening, highlights of this piece include the two off-stage trumpet fanfares heard in the central development section (the second sounding closer signifying the Florestan’s immanent release from prison) and the flute and oboe duet which was nestled in a bed of swaying strings before the whole orchestra erupted with gusto. Steffens’ sporadic movements and energised gestures rigorously controlled the orchestra so as to convey a single unified intention.

Seeming to blend coherency of interpretation with creative ingenuity, Steffens’ style suited that of Frank Peter Zimmermann who performed Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with astonishing speed and accuracy (apart from the first flourish which was slightly flat). On the whole, Zimmermann’s precise pitch and pure tone were illustrative of an accomplished performer and musician. His manner was one of a commanding virtuoso wearing a cheeky smile. A fellow enthusiast even commented that Zimmermann “seemed to be having fun with the orchestra, jesting with the first violinist through the speed of his playing”. Performing on his 1711 ‘Lady Inchiquin’ Stradivarius which once belonged to Fritz Kreisler, Zimmermann was electrifying and flavoured this contrasting piece with a distinctly minor feel. Adding ornamentation at the beginning of the third movement and lifting the Andante with dynamic variation, Zimmerman subtly picked out the contrasting emotions that infiltrate each section of this work. Commenting on this piece, the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim told the guests at his 75th birthday party in 1906 that:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.

With a reputation of being the essential work for all aspiring violin virtuosi to master, a performance by the much celebrated Frank Peter Zimmermann did not disappoint.

What can be said of a piece once described as being “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man” (E. M. Forster)? I am tempted to back out of talking about Beethoven’s Fifth by paraphrasing the composer himself. This mighty symphony proves Beethoven’s statement that:

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.

Indeed, I shall not profess to understand the magnanimity and intricacy of this piece which overwhelms with fraught emotion and simultaneously unravels our innermost sensitivities and fears. To describe the impact of this sublime work, E. T. A. Hoffmann could not be more superlatively rapturous as he wrote:

Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

Bringing out the limpidity and drama embedded in the first movement and with a particularly atmospheric opening (played on cellos and double basses) to the third movement which returns to key of C minor, the Philharmonia sounded brilliant. Unfortunately the second movement sounded overtly regal as the brass section became quite abrasive. However, this did not detract from the overall class and well deserved applause given to the Philharmonia under Karl-Heinz Steffens.

Lucy Jeffery.

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