Dohnányi Brings Interpretative Insight and Consistency to Beethoven’s Ninth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Beethoven: Martin Helmchen (piano); Charlotta Larsson (soprano); Ruxandra Donose (mezzo-soprano); Michael König (tenor); James Rutherford (bass); Rodolfus Choir; Philharmonia Voices; Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi. Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.9.2015 (CC)

Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral”

This event was an Anniversary Gala Concert, celebrating not only the Philharmonia’s 70th anniversary but also the 25th anniversary of the re-unification of Germany. Beethoven’s Ninth, with its hymn to universal brotherhood, would seem to be the perfect choice, therefore.

First we heard Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the young Berlin-born pianist, Martin Helmchen. This was the piece Helmchen chose for his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic under Gergiev, and there is no doubting his familiarity with it. Technically, everything was excellent; yet his reading seems as yet immature. Helmchen’s way with Schumann’s voice-leading is rather superficial, and his first movement cadenza seemed to want to imitate Liszt rather than remain within Schumann’s orbit. Dohnányi displayed a deeper approach, instantly responsive to changes of mood. The central Intermezzo, marked Andantino grazioso, was taken briskly and had its cheekier moments. It was a pity that Helmchen’s tone seemed rather forced at the opening of the finale. He could also over-project the right-hand melody at times, while other gestures lacked spontaneity. On the plus side, Dohnányi’s decision to use antiphonally placed violins really worked in this finale.

And so to Beethoven’s Ninth, the opening of which was complete, on this occasion, with scampering well-heeled punters whose interval jolly had clearly over-run, entering simultaneously with Dohnányi and squeezing roughly past audience members (your intrepid, knee-bruised reviewer included) to find the nearest available stalls seat. This was not the best beginning to a performance that was actually a significant one. Dohnányi’s antiphonal violins once more paid dividends, and he placed his soloists at the front around him with the mezzo to the extreme left. Conducting from memory, the sound he drew from the Philharmonia was surprisingly raw: no Cadillac-sleek performance, this. More impressive still was the sense of gradual unfolding he imparted to the first movement. The timpani played a vital role, including crescendi that had a visceral effect. The scampering elements of the second movement were particularly notable.

The slow movement was a flowing four-in-a-bar at the opening; here, flow was the most important element. A superb fourth horn solo (actually played by the fourth horn: not always the case), marked by fluid legato and perfect slurs, was a high point. Thankfully, the audience was properly hushed for the first, lower string statement of the “Ode to Joy” theme. More impressive still was the bass soloist, James Rutherford, who narrated rather than over-sang his first statements (“O Freunde …”). Here was a sense of proper involvement. Tenor Michael König, too, was strong and excellent at his “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen”. The four soloists also worked well together as a group, with a radiant, shining climactic note from soprano Charlotta Larsson. Dohnányi made the finale cohere so that the final choral statements seemed the only possible course.

The combined forces of the Rodolfus Choir and the Philharmonia Voices were simply superb, capable of full-toned pianissimi and earth-shaking fortissimi. Having heard many concerts under the direction of Dohnányi, I have rarely been impressed (like my colleague Robert Beattie, I was disappointed by Dohnányi’s Heldenleben), yet here there was real interpretative insight and consistency.

Colin Clarke