United Kingdom Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms: Esther Yoo (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra / Karl-Heinz Steffens (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 .11.2017. (Y-JH)
Beethoven – Overture, Egmont
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto
Brahms – Symphony No.4
There is a fine line between a performance being overtly self-conscious and having a distinct personal mark. The performance of tonight gravitated toward the latter, as Karl-Heinz Steffens conducted the Romantic masterpieces of the evening with deep felt personality.
The gradual weight of the opening chord of the Egmont Overture summarized Steffens’ general direction. Adopting a generally relaxed tempo, Steffens slowly carved out Beethoven’s darkness to light narrative with lyrical ardour and care. Yet sinew was rarely compromised, with the brass and trumpet enjoying the ultimate triumph in F major.
That the Korean-American Esther Yoo played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with the Philharmonia is no happenstance, given their recent Deutsche Grammophon disc collaboration of the same work with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Unlike the more straight-faced Ashkenazy, however, Steffens encouraged much lyricism as he moulded each note with smoothness – the strings were most to benefit. The nasally velvet-toned 1704 ‘Prince Obolensky’ Stradivarius of Yoo suited the violinist’s concentrated grace. It was no perfect performance – moments of nervousness were clearly present especially in some high notes. Still there was no lacking of conviction and willpower in Yoo’s playing. If anything, the cadenza of the first movement was played with immaculate style, as was the dizzyingly brilliant Finale, all in the characteristically husky lower registers of Yoo’s tone. Steffen’s penchant for broad tempo and frequent ventures into the quiet extremes of dynamics may have been detrimental to some elements of excitement, and the balance between the orchestra and the soloist was awkward in the Canzonetta to the degree that the fragilely beautiful tone of Yoo became overpowered by the orchestra. Yet it was an overall strong performance – the applauses at the end of the first and third movements were justified.
Brahms is far from a composer of thin emotions, and if one may entertain the notion of the late works of the German composer to have acquired an inward-looking, quasi-metaphysical dimension, the E minor Fourth Symphony stands as a representation of this very style. Steffens, who conducted the work without score, did little to counter his drive to maximize the underlying seriousness of the work. Themes were broadly shaped with weight, the timpani and brass rarely timid in moments of need. For example, how many times have we heard the rhythmic section at the climax of the Finale played underpowered, as if it was just another variation of the Passacaglia? Steffens’ serious-minded reading did not allow such perfunctory execution, as the timpani and brass blazed out the stomps with rehearsed and expected – albeit spontaneously dangerous – enthusiasm. Memorable, too, were sections of lyricism, such as the slowly and deliberately taken Andante Moderato that was particularly tranquil and songful. Such romantic ventures certainly shine another light on Philharmonia’s characteristic angular fervour displayed often under their chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was a deeply felt and personal performance yet which perhaps due to its utterly seriousness of intent, avoided feeling self-conscious.
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