Akiko Suwanai Makes a Fine Impression in Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Beethoven and Dvořák: Akiko Suwanai (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra,/Tugan Sokhiev (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 29.2.2016. (AS)

Schubert: Overture, Rosamunde

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in B minor, B178, “From the New World”

The Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanai was the youngest ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990 at the age of 18, and during the late 1990s and early 2000s she made several recordings for Philips and Decca. At present she is not perhaps so well known to the musical public as some of her violinist colleagues, but on the evidence of her performance of the Beethoven concerto at this concert it is hard to see why this should be. At every level it was a most satisfying experience.

Suwanai has a most beautiful tone quality, but she produces a big sound that carries well over the orchestra. Her technique is absolutely clear-cut and utterly reliable: there was no doubtful intonation in her performance.

Her approach to the concerto’s first movement was quite measured, with dignified, aristocratic phrasing that was as pleasing to the intellect as it was to the ear. The Beethoven is of course a much-played concerto, but on this occasion it seemed new and fresh in Suwanai’s hands. It wasn’t as if she played the movement in any way that was surprising or unorthodox, but it was her sheer warmth and communicative skills that made the difference. In the Larghetto Suwanai again let the music breath unhurriedly: there was an improvisational quality in her playing, a gentle poetry that was most moving. In the finale she brought a joyous quality to the triple rhythm: in her hands the music had a dance-like nature.

Alas, Sokhiev’s conducting throughout the work was on a lower level than that of his soloist in terms of imagination and spontaneity – it was rather routine, in fact, especially in the finale, where rather leaden orchestral support for the soloist was supplied.

The concert had started with a performance of Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture that was brisk and efficiently delivered. There was, however, a lack of Viennese charm; the playing was slightly martial in nature, and opportunities for expressive elegance or deftness of phrase were continually passed over.

Sokhiev played the first movement of the New World Symphony in a direct, straightforward manner, except that at two points he curiously inserted commas that had no apparent musical justification and merely broke up the flow of the music. It was all very well done in a way, but there was a lack of atmosphere, and no Slavonic fervour. The Largo was distinguished by a cor anglais solo played with great beauty by the incomparable Jill Crowther. Here Sokhiev responded to her artistry and the nature of the music with calm sensitivity, though again depth of feeling was not conveyed by his conducting.

There was a quality of rhythmic tightness in the Scherzo, taken at a rapid pace. The music was not allowed to breath, or to convey its natural dance-like, warmly uplifting nature. Just a hint of relaxation came to the surface in the trio, but the tempo was again too fast. A lack of rhythmic give and take also characterised the last movement: the music making was superficially bright and cheerful rather than truly heartfelt.

There were, however, some positives to be taken from the concert from an orchestral point of view. The list of permanent playing personnel printed in the main programme indicates several vacancies in the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the separate list of those playing at this particular concert showed a number of new or different names. Clearly the orchestra is going through a period of transition, and in recent times its standard of execution has not always reached previous great heights. On this occasion the playing was reassuringly first-rate, and one hopes that this is a harbinger of better things.

Sokhiev is a gifted conductor who has shown remarkable qualities in previous Philharmonia concerts, and he clearly has the ability to get extra-special playing from an orchestra. On this occasion he was disappointing interpretatively, but again one hopes for the return of better things from him in the future.

Alan Sanders   

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