An Impressive Pärt-Beethoven Concert from Dohnányi and Helmchen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Pärt, Beethoven: Martin Helmchen (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.6.2016 (GD)

Arvo Pärt: Frates  Version for violin, string orchestra and percussion
Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58
Beethoven Symphony No 6 in F major,Op 68

Fratres (Brothers) has acquired a wide currency, especially as music accompanying documentaries and films depicting catastrophic events like the Holocaust. This music has a direct emotional charge in its sublime sense of mystery and frozen time redolent of Adorno’s  ‘prismatic’ time and history, a broken-negative dialectic, connecting to events like the Holocaust which are still inimicable to any kind of rational/logical understanding or resolution. Pärt’s work is a set of variations on a six-bar theme combining a sublime stillness encapsulating his observation that the ‘instant and eternal are struggling within us’. Waves of sound in the string orchestra from pp, to a resonant low ff explore a rich harmonic space punctuated by ominous and haunting percussive taps. Dohnányi obtained a non-interventionist, impressive range of dynamics in the filigree of string sound, establishing just the right tempo from the outset. There are many instrumental arrangements of Fratres, ranging from those for chamber ensembles to the full orchestral version with violin (1992), which was played tonight with idiomatic understanding by the orchestra’s leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. I prefer the orchestral version without violin, but everything seemed to work tonight.

Helmchen did not disappoint in the Beethoven concerto, going from strength to strength in the first movement exposition with its ornamental flourishes echoed in the orchestra. Particularly impressive was the way in which both soloist and conductor negotiated the B major excursions of the first movement development section – thematically linked to the cadenza; important points which Helmchen made us aware of without any kind of pianistic underlining. All the way through the first movement there was an impressive sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor. This was made even more resonant in the development section proper, beginning with a D major, where the quite dramatic contrasts are partly resolved in the distant key of C sharp minor. Helmchen played the more favoured of the two cadenzas Beethoven composed.

In the wonderful ‘Andante con moto’ Dohnányi emphasised the con moto. Again there was a an impressive dialogue between soloist and conductor, with Helmchen’s wonderfully subtle Orphic responses to the stern declamations of the strings in their low registers.  His transition into the coda was a model of structural awareness where Beethoven has magically metamorphosed the initial E minor into an array of haunting and distant tonalities. My only criticism was a certain lack of rugged thrust in the opening recitative-like Orphic string phrases, a certain trenchant  stoicism which Klemperer used to play with such power. But, as if in compensation, Dohnányi perfectly balanced that moment of ‘supreme darkness’ (Tovey) at the end of the movement with ‘sotto voce’ basses intoning the Orphic theme over a sustained and haunting string phrase. The ‘Rondo vivace’ was rhtythmically sharp with the G major, C major juxtapositions skillfully managed. I would have welcomed more sharp thrust in the important timpani part, but overall this was a fine performance with Helmchen in excellent form.

Dohnányi conducted a beautifully fresh and lucid performance of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Again, admirable balance and transparency of textures gave a compelling edge to the performance.  Most of the opening allegro made an enduring effect with appropriately sprung rhythms. At times I missed the integrated contrast and tension that Toscanini used to bring to the long crescendos in the development section. But I suppose comparisons of this sort, with a kind of modern, period-influenced, performance, are odious! But in the second movement andante molto mosso (‘Scene by the Brook’) I didn’t really have the sense of what Tovey described as the ‘enormous strength of someone who knows how to relax’. This was probably due to Dohnányi not always effectively balancing the intricate dynamics of the movement. Towards the end there is a wonderful dialogue between clarinet and bassoon which leads to a marvellous constellation of harmonies and melodies. These were all played well but there was a sense of blandness around the whole sequence which should intone a subtle but glowing ‘sotto voce’. But apart from this, Dohnányi achieved a convincing sense of flowing lyricism throughout the movement. The rustic-sounding woodwind came into their own in the ‘Peasants Merry-making’. Although the highlighting of the flutes, in particular, didn’t always come off. The ‘Storm’ was well handled, although I missed the sheer dramatic effect it can have in its initial unleashing …like a flash of lightening. I can’t forget the sheer elemental impact Toscanini used to deliver here. I also missed the force and drama Toscanini used to bring to the timpani part. The last movement (Shepherd’s Song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm) in F major, in 6/8 time,  Rondo form, was beautifully played and conducted, reminding me of the original, classical Walter Legge Philharmonia. The whole movement had a marvellous sweep and glow, with superb clarity in the horns and woodwinds, taking me back to the sound Klemperer used to produce. The ‘Pianissimo, sotto voce’ passage just before the coda, where most conductors slow down, was wisely taken in tempo by Dohnányi, just before the resounding two F major chords.

Throughout Dohnányi wisely deployed antiphonal violins, which were particularly effective in the Pastoral Symphony.

Geoff Diggines

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