United Kingdom Wagner, Prokofiev, Beethoven: Michael Barenboim (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Domingo Hindoyan (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 14.1.2017. (CS)
Wagner – Overture, Der fliegende Holländer
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.1
Beethoven – Symphony No.5
The Philharmonia Orchestra offered plenty of drama, detail and diversity during their latest visit to the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. The concert was the second performance of a three-city tour which had begun at Bedford’s Corn Exchange four days earlier – with violinist Min Lee as the soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto – and was set to continue on 17th January at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, with a reprise of the programme heard here.
The programme highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of performers and venue alike; or, rather, perhaps it is fairer to say that the multi-purpose auditorium did not always allow the Philharmonia’s musical assets to make their mark – the renowned warm string sheen occasionally sounded a little dulled – and exacerbated a few minor limitations. I’ve noted before that the box-shaped stage at the Marlowe pushes the brass and woodwind back towards the sound-absorbing black drapes, and in the curtain-raiser – the overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman – even though the horns and brass were raised on tiered seating, the swashbuckling gleam was taken off the opening heralds.
The overture is a good concert opener for, while it wonderfully synthesises the opera’s drama, it’s also a terrific stand-alone portrait of the tumultuous sea. The opening phrases were not delivered with a clean marcato punchiness, however, and while the strings worked hard through their swirling chromatic swells and repeating quavers, initially this was an everyday storm rather than a turbulent tempest.
The acoustic placed demands on ensemble and intonation too. The woodwind struggled with the tuning of the Andante and when they were joined by the horns and trombones the effect was of three separate tonal colours, slightly at odds with each other, rather than a blended consonance. Minor misgivings aside, I was impressed by conductor Domingo Hindoyan’s attention to the details of the score, and his confident gestures were expressive. A product of the now legendary El Sistema project in Venezuela, Hindoyan sought to emphasise the melodic qualities of the overture, and as the players settled we enjoyed some broad-breathed phrasing from the woodwind in particular. The conductor increasingly stirred up a wind-swept energy, culminating in the violin sections’ perfectly co-ordinated surge through a rising diminished seventh arpeggio, triggering an explosive coda which had real sonic lustre.
Hindoyan’s performance was similarly self-assured when the Philharmonia accompanied violinist Michael Barenboim in a pristine performance of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto of 1917. If conductor and soloist seemed surprisingly relaxed, then their regular appearances together with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – of which Hindoyan has been a standing member since 2006, and Barenboim Concertmaster since 2003 – probably helped.
Hindoyan was determined to highlight the work’s orchestral delicacies, leaving Barenboim to reveal the virtuosity of its technical acrobatics – which he did with nonchalant effortlessness and calm focus. The soloist’s first theme, above shimmering divided violas, was dreamy, even otherworldly, the thread of sound given core strength by a slow, fairly wide vibrato. Though not a physically demonstrative player – his gestures are efficient and fruitful – throughout the concerto Barenboim varied the style and degree of his vibrato, creating many moods. While he does not indulge in the sort of grimacing and physical emoting that Jascha Heifetz once described as ‘funny business’, Barenboim does, however, have an idiosyncratic repertoire of right-leg movements – a perched heel, a tiny stamp and a more conspicuous kick – which serve as an unconscious embodiment of a deep and spontaneous responsiveness which cannot always be read from the violinist’s serene, inscrutable facial expression.
The tempo of the Scherzo was just right: it danced with strong momentum, and the soloist’s fireworks fizzed. Barenboim dispatched the runs, left-hand pizzicatos, double-stopping, slides on harmonics and gutsy G-string climbs with the same relaxed insouciance with which he switched between the concerto’s contrasting moods: from the gentlest folk-like simplicity of the opening, to the violence of the middle of the first movement, to its ethereal close. Perhaps a certain ‘tartness’ or biting wit was sometimes lacking, but Barenboim’s nuanced lyricism in the bittersweet final movement was breathtakingly beautiful.
This short concerto – it’s just over twenty minutes in length – relies for its full expressiveness on a sparking orchestral colour palette and Hindoyan coaxed finely crafted, vivid individual lines and timbres from the Philharmonia. He was unwaveringly sensitive to his soloist, who was never forced to push his sound.
The grand dramatic trajectory of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony seemed to suit Hindoyan’s temperament. This was an interpretation of seriousness, urgency and sweeping vision, especially in the first three movements, which captured the symphonic majesty of the work. The con Brio which Beethoven appends to the opening movement’s Allegro indication was intently observed: Hindoyan set off at quite a lick, scarcely observing the fermata of the symphony-defining fate motif. The strings’ counterpoint was crisp and clean, the fast tempo inducing a lightness that was welcome; there was not a single overlooked detail. A little less con moto would have given the second movement the spaciousness that it needs, if it is to counter the first movement’s restlessness. After all, the Andante theme – introduced with expressive warmth here by violas and cellos – has a long-breathed ease about it which seems to invite the slightest of elongations – a sigh of pleasure – in its penultimate bar. Similarly, the variations are elaborate but should not sound frantic; here, the teeming string lines required a little too much effort at this pace, and it was difficult for the violas and cellos to imbue the running demisemiquaver passages with the requisite dolce composure.
The Scherzo was full of character – notable were the striking rhythmic blasts from the horns, and the dark rumblings in the Trio from the cellos and basses. The transition to the final movement was skilfully negotiated – both technically and expressively. Subdued fragments of the Scherzo’s main theme were darkened by the timpani’s portentous pulsing; then the violins scaled their arpeggio arrived at a taut tremolando which Hindoyan released in a blaze of C major brilliance.
Throughout this performance, conductor and orchestra seemed a comfortable fit for each other. Hindoyan had something fresh to say about Beethoven’s symphony – one of the most familiar compositions in classical music – and the Philharmonia were pleased to have a well-known journey refreshed by unaccustomed vistas and by-ways. The large Canterbury audience were evidently greatly appreciative.