Little Beguiles and Yamada Communicates his Vision in Philharmonia Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Mendelssohn & Tchaikovsky: Tasmin Little (violin), Kazuki Yamada (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 6.4.2016. (CS)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No.3 Op. 72a

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor Op.64

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E Minor Op.64

This concert at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury by the theatre’s resident orchestra, the Philharmonia, was subtitled ‘In the Hands of Fate’. But, with a soloist of the calibre and reliability of violinist Tasmin Little, and a conductor, Kazuki Yamada, whose disciplined, scrupulous approach and elegant technique ensured that the reins were tightly held, there seemed little danger of any loss of control, inadvertent musical adversity or mishap.  Presenting three weighty Romantic works, the Philharmonia and Yamada performed with consistency and commitment, and captured the particular dramatic flavour of each work.

The Marlowe Theatre re-opened in this its third incarnation in October 2011 after an extensive refurbishment and re-design, and the Philharmonia have now settled comfortably into this new home, with its not always particularly helpful acoustic. Concerts at the start of the residency were occasionally marred by lack of clarity and brightness, but the players – seated at the very front of the deep stage (which is still, alas, swathed in black curtains to rear and side) – clearly now appreciate how to overcome any innate challenges to their projection of a vibrant, dynamic sound.  They have to work hard though, which on this occasional they undoubtedly did.

Beethoven wrote four overtures for his opera, Fidelio, over the course of a decade.  The subsequent struggles of musicologists to unravel the sequence and revisions may not equal Beethoven’s own in producing an opera at all, but they are not inconsiderable.  What we now know as Leonore No.3 was composed for a revised version of Fidelio first heard at the Theater an der Wien in either November 1805 or March 1806, depending on which critical source one consults.  And, it has become the most popular of the four versions as a concert piece.  It is also the version that perhaps most closely follows the operatic narrative, from the dungeon-imprisoned Florestan’s misery, to the fiery heroism of Leonore’s quest to rescue her husband, to Florestan’s final reprieve from the clutches of death, announced by an off-stage trumpet which triggers a coda of victory.

In fact, the overture is probably so ‘complete’ in itself that it’s not suitable as a ‘preface’ to further music-drama. The Philharmonia were certainly committed in conjuring Beethoven’s dark despair and his heroic passion, but I wasn’t convinced that Yamada had total control of Beethoven’s formal drama.  Individual episodes observed the details of Beethoven’s score, and dynamic contrasts were striking – my guest for the evening commented afterwards that Yamada certainly seemed to be able to marshal his forces to his will – but to my mind they didn’t quite form a sum of the whole.

That said, the opening Adagio conveyed both anxiety and profundity which came together to escalate into an almost destabilising dissonance – the cellos clearly enjoyed pounding out their low Ab pedal as the harmonic chaos accrued! – before Leonore’s heroism swept aside the trauma of imprisonment and injustice.  So strange is the dissonant tension that one wonders if Beethoven really intended this chordal cacophony … or whether a copyist’s error intervened!

With the optimistic Allegro there was a real sense of ‘release’ – of ebullient energy and a clearing of the air; such warmth was later countered by the strings’ more tender melodies – Florestan’s memories of loyalty and love.  While there were some small slips of ensemble and the occasional inaccurate horn entry, the dramatic momentum was sustained until the pronouncement of the off-stage trumpet heralding Florestan’s release, which brought about a weighty silence.  Freedom is assured, and at this point I’d have liked to have heard more from the first flute whose line rises in rapturous joy; but, the heroic recapitulation brought forth playing of great vitality, most especially from the strings.  It was a real treat to hear the quavers of the final Presto – which the score suggests should be played by just two or three players with the others joining in sequence – begin with the merest of whispers, yet utterly precise, performed with proficiency and confidence by the entire first violin section, then supplemented by the lower voices as the music bloomed heroically.  This audaciousness and aptitude was a sign of what we might enjoy in the symphony to come.

Before that, though, we were beguiled by Mendelssohn’s perennially popular Violin Concerto, performed by violinist Tasmin Little, whose direct expression, unfussy lyricism and lovely tone made sure that the affecting moments of the score hit the mark without any overly bravura distractions.  Little’s technique embodies notions of discipline, sureness and selflessness; she undoubtedly serves the music, but that is not to suggest that there is no flair to her delivery.  If she seemed a little constrained at the start, maintaining eye contact with Yamada and positioned with her fiddle turned towards the podium, this probably says more about the available rehearsal time for UK orchestras than it does about Little’s own playing; she seemed anxious to ensure that her preferred tempi were clearly signalled to Yamada, and he was more than alert in picking up the clues.

The tempo of the Allegretto molto appassionato was – as I find so often in performances of this concerto – somewhat hasty, which meant that the melodic arcs didn’t really have time to breathe.  But Little’s well-centred intonation and vigorous articulation made the musical arguments clear – both in the solo episodes and when joining in the tutti passages.  The first-movement cadenza was assertive rather than reflective and this gave added stature to the movement as a whole.  The Andante spun its charm; here Little’s beautiful, refreshing tone and expressive candour were ideal communicative agents, though again I’d have liked her to have indulged in a little more expressive rubato.

In the Finale, Little relaxed and her real delight in the music was fully evident, as was her rapport with the Philharmonia players. This was one of those performances that seem to dance effortlessly from down-beat to concluding cadence.

Little led this concerto from the front; Yamada was happy to serve his soloist as supportively and judiciously as he could. But, there were places where it would have been good to hear the instrumental soloists take the opportunity to shine, and to join in more pronounced duet with the soloist’s reflections – as in the second subject of the first movement, where the soloist sustains a low G over which the woodwind introduce the more relaxed secondary theme.  Similarly, in the lively interjections of flute and bassoon in the Allegro molto vivace, Little looked towards her woodwind partners in anticipation, but the figure didn’t quite have the necessary effervescence.

Tchaikovsky approached his Fifth Symphony burdened by characteristic self-doubt; in contrast Yamada was confidently in command of every detail of the score.  The conductor evidently had a clear sense of how he wanted each moment to sound and how to communicate his vision effectively and encouragingly to the Philharmonia players.  More impressive even than this meticulousness and assurance, though, was Yamada’s sure sense of Tchaikovsky’s grand ‘paragraphs’ and the way the tension between them drives the score onwards.

Time and again, the return of the fate theme seemed almost to shock the music into silence, and Yamada revealed a natural appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s musical architecture and narrative. The dark clarinet theme that opens the Andante introduction to the Allegro con anima intimated a funereal mood, but from these portentous beginnings evolved a wealth of thematic material – from the graceful song of the bassoon and clarinet, to the Slavonic march-like episode, to the strings’ anguished theme – which Yamada shaped into a coherent drama.

The slow movement was notable for lovely playing from horn and oboe, but it was the strings who impressed most. There were moments in both the Andante cantabile and the following Valse where they played with the concordance of good chamber musicians, their tone swelling richly in a manner reminiscent of the most rhapsodic episodes of the composer’s Serenade for Strings.  The shift to the major key for the start of the Finale was invigorating and the tempo impulsive, as Yamada struck a fine balance between moments of suspense and gradually more assertive resolution.  The strings’ corps was not particularly large, and Tchaikovsky employs fairly modest woodwind and brass forces, but the blazing E major fortissimo shone with brilliance, climaxing in a stirring timpani roll and glowing brass fanfares.  Yamada did not let the hiatus which follows disturb the prevailing momentum and the coda romped home triumphantly.  This performance truly captured Tchaikovsky’s spirit and sentiment.

Claire Seymour

The Philharmonia Orchestra return to the Marlowe Theatre on Wednesday 4 May 2016, 7.30pm with conductor Edward Gardner and pianist Martin Helchelm in works by Mozart, Beethoven and Elgar: Philharmonia/Gardner.


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