The Philharmonia Bring Shadows And Sunlight to Canterbury

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Mahler: Piotr Anderszewski (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Kent, 17.2.2018. (CS)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.1
Mahler – Symphony No.5

The Philharmonia Orchestra arrived at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury – described in the programme as their ‘second home’ – on Saturday evening, to perform a programme entitled Shadows and Sunlight, which they had presented two evenings previously at the Royal Festival Hall.  Now in the seventh year of their residency at the theatre, the orchestra were welcomed by a satisfyingly large audience who showed warm appreciation of the orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Indeed, there was much to admire.  The Philharmonia now have the measure of the Marlowe’s acoustical challenges – the outside players of the antiphonally arranged violin sections were perched precariously near to the edge of the stage! – and Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša took care to maintain good balance between brass and strings, encouraging impressively precise yet warm playing from the latter, and some controlled and affecting pianissimos.  I thought that the string section leaders were superb too, really inspiring confident ensemble playing from their respective teams.  ‘A safe pair of hands’ might seem a rather patronising observation to make about lead cellist Karen Stephenson, but the opposite is intended: assured and relaxed, Stephenson’s evident pleasure in the performance, and her engagement with the other players, added to my own enjoyment.  In the first half of the concert, the woodwind, horns and trumpets seemed a little reticent, but I suspect this was a result of my being seated much closer to the stage than usual.  Later, in the Mahler symphony the focused warmth of the horns, and absolute precision even when most exposed, was noteworthy.

There were some ‘question marks’ too, though, not least concerning the communication and concord between soloist Piotr Anderszewski and the orchestra in Beethoven’s concerto.  That’s not to suggest that there was anything remiss about the ensemble: far from it, Hrůša aimed for and achieved a rhythmic tautness that matched Anderszewski’s slightly unyielding approach.  The orchestral opening of the Allegro con brio sparkled with delicious lightness before a heart-warming crescendo welcomed the sunshine.  Woodwind solos were cleanly delineated, and orchestral textures were refined.  Hrůša conjured a lovely serioso mood from the strings in the Largo, the ‘gravity’ tempered by beautifully lyrical playing by the bassoons and clarinets, and the orchestral delicacy was sustained and beguiling, the Philharmonia never rising above a mezzo piano.

The problem was more a lack of shared spirit.  Anderszewski drew a percussive, even metallic, sound from the Steinway, which suggested the sort of glaring sunlight that makes one’s eyes hurt rather than glittering rays or a balmy glow.  The music was deftly etched but not really ‘expressed’.  The first-movement cadenza seemed rather aimless and did not make the structural or dramatic impact that it might.  And, throughout the movement the pianist did not seem interested in modulating the tone nor in enlivening the passagework with a sense of ‘theatre’.  In fact, Anderszewski did not seem all that interested at all – overheard observations during the interval included ‘clinical’ and ‘cold’.  That’s a little too harsh, perhaps, for at times the second movement had eloquence and grace, and the trills and ornamentation of the solo line were finely etched.  But, the Rondo seemed to clatter rather than glitter, and some startlingly emphatic left-hand pounding towards the close seemed at odds with Beethoven’s scherzando marking.

The disappointments of the first half promised to be extinguished, however, by the opening bars of Mahler’s Trauermarsch.  Heralded by some fine brass playing, the strings’ trudging tread felt like a heavy cloak on one’s shoulders, which is both a source of warmth and comfort, and a wearying weight.  The refinement of texture and the extremes of timbral contrast which Hrůša etched were almost viscerally affecting, conjuring a shiver or sigh.  Though the mood was funereal, there was a sense of embarking on a journey, although as the movement proceeded the destination became less clear or certain.  Any one section spoke of powerful, almost overwhelming emotions – the grief-stricken terror of the trio, the desolation of the reprised march – but the conversation developing between the unfolding episodes was not conveyed with absolute conviction.

The violent vehemence of the second movement was startling, disturbing, and Hrůša kept a rein on the wildness while never destroying the freedom.  Again, Hrůša managed the abrupt shifts and starts of the movement well.  After the savagery, the brass chorale had an uplifting shine and buoyancy.  The scherzo was ebullient – again the tempo was well-judged – and truly danced.  The horns were fantastically precise and melodious in the trio, and the conclusion was a blaze of colour.

In the Adagettio, however, I felt that Hrůša dragged his heels rather and the sentiment was reduced rather than strengthened by the expressive ‘effort’.  I’d have liked more ‘darkness’ too, from the low hues of the violas and cellos.  The finale’s fugal writing was crisply delineated, creating a somewhat quizzical air which strayed into mysteriousness in the central pianissimo episode – a sort of intimation of counterpoint from the shadows.  But, there were giocoso light-spirits too.

After first performance of the Fifth Symphony, Mahler lamented, ‘Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death’.  The ambiguities and questions are perhaps unanswerable, but Hrůša and the Philharmonia made a good attempt to fathom the symphony’s secrets.

Claire Seymour

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