United Kingdom, Beethoven, Strauss and Brahms: Katy Woolley (horn), Philharmonia Orchestra, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 12.3.2015 (AS)
Beethoven: Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture
Richard Straus: Egmont, Op. 84 – Overtures: Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Here was an old-fashioned programme consisting of an overture, a concerto and a symphony. Its balance and proportions seemed perfect. Sokhiev’s performance of the Egmont Overture was itself well-proportioned and well judged. It was quite lyrical in style, and those listeners who wanted the musical argument to be hammered home will have been disappointed. But to this listener the expressive, tonally warm quality that Sokhiev obtained from his players was satisfying in its own terms.
Then a tall, slim young lady in her mid-twenties strode confidently on to the platform and, apparently free of nerves, proceeded to deliver an almost technically perfect account of Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto. Years ago, you might have seen Alan Civil’s wife Shirley in an orchestra’s horn section, but there were few lady horn players until recently. Now, to judge from the perceived membership of youth orchestras, there is quite a number of young female students mastering this intractable instrument. Our soloist at the concert, Katy Woolley, played third horn in the Philharmonia Orchestra whilst she was still a student at Royal College of Music, and at the age of 22 was appointed the orchestra’s principal horn. Not only is her technique rock-like, but she produces a beautifully rounded tone quality. In the future she will, I am sure, invest slightly more personality in her interpretation of this concerto, but already hers is a remarkably accomplished performance of it. As is the convention in such circumstances, a bouquet was presented to her as soloist, and in a charming gesture she moved swiftly to the back of the orchestra and re-presented the trophy to her horn section colleagues.
Given Sokhiev’s noble performance of the overture, and his sensitive, adroit handling of the orchestra in the Strauss concerto, it was to be expected that his Brahms would prove to be very well worth hearing. And so it was. The work’s opening was launched in perfect style, purposefully but with the most eloquent, Romantic phrasing. In this first movement a trap for unwary conductors lies in the dotted rhythms that accompany the melodic line, for they can easily sound stodgy. This was not the case here, for Sokhiev’s accenting was clear, but light-footed. His approach was certainly lyrically beautiful, but structurally it was satisfying, too. And so it was in the following Andante moderato movement, which had a lovely sense of ebb and flow, though maybe the pulse became just a little slow towards the end. The only Scherzo in Brahms’s four symphonies was, by contrast, bracingly brisk and made a good prelude to that most difficult movement for a conductor, the Passacaglia finale. But Sokhiev negotiated the varying moods of the movement’s short variations with great skill and artistry to conclude a most satisfying performance. Now in his late thirties, this Ossetian conductor has reached a high level of musical maturity.