The Philharmonia on Fine Form Under Christoph von Dohnányi’s Wise Direction

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven: Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 7.6.2018. (AS)

Arabella Steinbacher (c) Sammy Hart

Haydn – Symphony No.12 in E, Hob1:12

Mozart – Violin Concerto No.5 in A, K219

Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op. 67

The first half of this programme reminded one of the great days of the Haydn-Mozart Society, under whose auspices the London Mozart Players and their conductor played works by these composers to packed Royal Festival Hall audiences. Though Haydn is well represented in chamber music concerts his symphonic works are now grievously underplayed in the larger concert halls. This seems partly to do with size – it now being thought that his symphonies are unsuitable for bigger ensembles. For this performance of the Symphony No.12 Christoph von Dohnányi used a medium sized orchestra, with, for example, ten first violins. He also had a harpsichord continuo in visual evidence, though its fragile timbres failed to break audibly through the scoring of strings, two horns, two oboes and a bassoon. No matter, for it was a delight to hear this charming work, which reminded us that Haydn wrote high-quality symphonies other than the late London series and those earlier works that are distinguished by having had nicknames bestowed on them. The Twelfth Symphony, though it is quite short and has only three movements, is by no means an apprentice composition, since Haydn was 31 years old when he wrote it.

At the age of 89 Dohnányi now sits down to conduct, but his energies seem unimpaired, for he directed a most characterful account of the symphony, producing some springy, elegant playing in the first movement Allegro, shaping an Adagio that was notable for its warmth of phrase and a delivering a high-spirited, lively Presto.

If the Haydn performance had given delight, then so did Arabella Steinbacher’s playing in the Mozart concerto. Not only was her technique superbly clean and controlled, but she produced the most beautiful range of tone colours that suited the music perfectly. Her rhythmic sense was unerringly well defined and her supremely elegant turns of phrase gave great listening satisfaction. You could almost feel the audience holding its breath in the experience of such artistry. Dohnányi and the orchestra gave her keenly appreciative support. As the programme note commented, Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto, and it would have been good to have been informed about the somewhat elaborate versions played by Steinbacher.

No matter how often you hear it, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony always makes an impact in an adequate presentation, and Dohnányi’s reading of the score was a great deal better than that. As one might expect from this conductor it was a direct, strong interpretation. Repeats were observed, not only in the first movement but in the finale as well. This contributed to the quality of well-judged balance that the performance conveyed. The music was kept moving quite briskly, though there was no sense of undue drive or hurry, and some effective, though slight, expressive gestures gave extra life to the music’s natural rhythmic qualities. The playing of the Philharmonia gave evidence that this orchestra is now back to its best form after a slightly uncertain period of change. I hope that Dohnányi will continue to impart his wise direction on orchestras for years to come.

Alan Sanders     

For an interview with Arabella Steinbacher click here.

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