Clemens Schuldt makes an animated London debut with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Mendelssohn, Beethoven: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Clemens Schuldt (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.10.2019. (CS)

Augustin Hadelich (c) Rosalie O’Connor

Schumann – Overture, Manfred Op.115
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A Op.92

I can think of few nicer ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than listening to Augustin Hadelich perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.  And, judging by the audience numbers in the Royal Festival Hall – there was scarcely an empty seat – my view is shared by many.

My previous opportunity to hear Hadelich play had necessitated a journey to Basingstoke on a cold, wet Friday evening in January.  This time the short trip to the Southbank Centre was more congenial, though the performance was perhaps less comprehensively satisfying.  There was nothing to fault with Hadelich’s own performance.  If anything the silvery sweetness of his E-string tone seems to grow ever stronger: the soaring theme of the Allegro molto appassionato sailed above the orchestral turbulence; the striving ascents of the Andante seemed to gain in strength as they rose, even while the overall dynamic and phrasal line remained even; the solo violin gloriously crested the unison strings in the rapid repetitions of the passagework which closes the Allegro molto vivace.  Hadelich is such an open and generous player; though absorbed in the totality of the work – nodding and shaking his head as he immerses himself in the orchestral tutti – he freely offers his violin’s wonderful song as if it is a gift we can and should cherish.

However, I felt that Schuldt’s management of the tempi of the movements meant that the three movements did not quite seem to settle alongside each other, and into a continuous whole, quite so naturally as they might.  The initial Allegro molto appassionato was brisk, almost impetuous, and Schuldt, while tactfully restraining the orchestra by keeping the tutti string chords tight and short, heightened the rhythmic vitality through discerning use of accentuation.  But, then, as the second subject approached, the ‘relaxation’ which always accompanies this point of arrival – the violin landing peacefully on a sustained open G string as the flutes introduce the tranquil theme – seemed excessive: the theme lost some of its shapeliness.  Subsequently Hadelich seemed to want to push forward, and the excitement did indeed resume, but the relationship between the two themes seemed unsettled.

Casting my mind back to Hadelich’s performance of this Concerto with the Hallé and Nicholas Collon in Sheffield’s City Hall in spring 2018 with, if my memory serves me correctly here at the RFH the violinist introduced greater drama and instability into the first movement cadenza, taking his time in places, pressing on in others, and elsewhere digging deep into the string.  Sadly, some of the expressive intensity that he created was lessened by the disruptive bronchial intrusions of far too many members of the audience – and, why do they always wait until the quietest, most tender or most tense moment to clear their respiratory tracts?  It’s something that’s been a problem at several LPO performances I’ve attended in the Festival Hall of late, and also occasionally at Wigmore Hall this season.

After a delightfully tender and mellow invitation from the bassoon for us to proceed into the Andante, I confess I found the slow tempo that Schuldt established at the start of this second movement very sluggish – more quasi Adagio than the pleasant stroll that Mendelssohn’s tempo marking suggests.  Again, Hadelich’s entry did nudge things along a little but, despite the easy grace of his playing and the gentle whispers of the accompanying strings, I felt that slow pace prevented the architecture of the extended phrases speaking as directly as they might.  There was plenty of joie de vivre in the Allegro molto vivace as Hadelich’s fingers did not so much scamper along his fingerboard but streamed like silk as he bow danced impishly.  At the end, whatever my own misgivings about some of Schuldt’s tempi, Hadelich looked delighted and the audience greeted his performance with a standing ovation.  In return, he challenged their Sunday-afternoon expectations by offering an encore which made them really use their ears and minds: Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega, as arranged by Ruggiero Ricci, which Hadelich played with exquisite delicacy, ricocheting his bow – just an inch or so of it – in a pianissimo tapestry of harmonic colour and light.

The Philharmonia had opened the concert with a very engaging performance of Schumann’s Manfred overture.  Schuldt certainly refuted any suggestion that might be made that orchestration was the composer’s ‘weak point’, with the melody line often obscured by thick textures.  Instead, the conductor revealed Schumann’s coloristic meticulousness and imagination, as well as the overture’s Romantic restlessness, punching out the first fragmented gesture, coaxingly unwinding the woodwind’s reflections, brandishing the brass fanfare motifs.  Throughout the endlessly changing moods, Schuldt maintained a convincing balance between urgency and repose, between fervour and melancholy.  Schumann makes considerable demands of his string players, but the Philharmonia fiddlers were on fiendish form, while the cellos relished their rapturous melody.

Buzzing with energy, Schuldt conducted a vibrant and animated performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony after the interval.  He sprinted onto the stage and launched energetically into the Poco sostenuto, making the opening chords sound like soft-stick timpani strikes and instilling suspense in the woodwind tone.  With strings arranged antiphonally, the horns raised in the centre, and trumpets stage-left complementing six double basses standing proud stage-right, the orchestral balance was generally good – though there were a few instances were Schuldt seemed eager to show us why Beethoven’s first listeners had been some bewildered by its almost bacchanalian physical energy, structural invention and rule-breaking ambitiousness.  We had four horns – I think that Beethoven specified two, but am willing to be corrected! – and when they joined the trumpets in a fortissimo tumult the roof was raised, raucously, briefly overwhelming the strings and woodwinds who returned to the fore in the beautifully lucid passages that Schuldt frequently sculpted.

Though I’ve questioned Schuldt’s tempi elsewhere in this performance, the Allegretto seemed to me ‘just right’, always moving forwards, the repeating rhythm tenderly pulsing rather than weeping with weighty melancholia.  The double basses at the start diminished to a spine-tingling pianissimo, while the violas’ first statement of the theme was soulful but kept in the shadows.  The building up of tension was expertly graded and solos from first the horn, then the oboe and flute duo, were beautifully played, as running inner lines flowed sweetly.  The Presto was the right side of boisterous – it flew rather than stamped – and I liked the way Schuldt often emphasised the second beat of the bar, creating lightness and lift; the Trio was surprising slow, presenting a striking though not uninteresting contrast.  The relentless physicality of the Allegro con brio left me quite out of breath … goodness knows how the Philharmonia players were feeling!

This was Schuldt’s London debut.  He’s exciting to watch, though occasionally a distracting figure on the podium: one audience member was heard to describe his body language as being more like of a rock star than a conductor (though perhaps in some cases there has been little distinction!).  If this is an exaggeration, then Schuldt certainly demonstrated a predilection for flinging his baton wide and high, often with glee and/or abandon, wheeling his left arm in flamboyant circles, and then scarcely deigning to offer a beat at all, preferring to communicate his intent through body gesture rather than more conventional conducting signals.  Knees, shoulders, feet, head et al are employed to the full!

Pleasure was stirringly visible on the faces of Schuldt and the Philharmonia players at the close of the concert, and the audience gave the conductor a warm welcome.  He has a busy 2019-20 season with debuts with the Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin, the Tonkünstler-Orchester, the Oregon Symphony and Kyoto Symphony, as well as at Garsington Opera where he will conduct Mozart’s Mitridate.  Evidently he enjoyed this first visit to London.  No doubt he’ll be invited back, and we’ll be seeing much more of Clemens Schuldt in the capital in future.

Claire Seymour