A rewarding Royal Festival Hall evening with a most gentle knight: Herreweghe and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Schubert: Thomas Zehetmair (Violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London. 21.11.2019. (CSa)

Thomas Zehetmair (c) Julien Mignot

Beethoven – Overture, The Creatures of Prometheus; Violin Concerto in D

Schubert – Symphony No.5 in B flat

Philippe Herreweghe Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur – holder of Leipzig’s Bach Medal and Knight by royal decree of King Albert of the Belgians – is not just one of Europe’s most decorated conductors, he is also one its most distinguished. His far-ranging musical interests, from Renaissance polyphony and Bach to the works of Arnold Schoenberg, include a passion for the repertoire of the nineteenth century, particularly the works of Beethoven and Schubert.

Making a rare – and much anticipated appearance – at the Royal Festival Hall with players from the Philharmonia Orchestra and violinist Thomas Zehetmair, Herreweghe presided over a programme which included a finely balanced performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and an intimate account of Schubert’s Symphony No.5.

Known for his expertise in historically informed interpretations, phrasing, balance and intimacy, rather than the use of authentic period instruments, are the key to Herreweghe’s approach. To this end, the orchestra, reduced to 53 players, were sitting in an open fan formation, and rearranged so that cellos were centrally located next to violas, with five double-basses in a row behind the brass and woodwind sections.

As he stepped onto the platform, Herreweghe greeted a wave of warm applause with a puzzled smile and an air of general bemusement. His tousled hair, spectacles and diffident gait might at first have suggested a gentle, absent-minded professor. Once on the rostrum, it was a different story. Alternating sure and decisive beats with the right arm and busy impressionistic hand movements to emphasise each vibrato passage, he exerted complete control over the orchestra while demonstrating the utmost sensitivity towards his players.

From the start of the concert, a slowly unfolding account of the Overture from Beethoven’s second ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus, the playing was deft. Giving a lightly articulated performance with no detail left to chance, Herreweghe ramped up the dramatic tension, bringing the mythical fire to its boisterous conclusion.

The composer’s Violin Concerto was written some five years after The Creatures of Prometheus, at the height of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’. On this occasion, the soloist was Salzburg-born Thomas Zehetmair – who famously recorded the work some twenty years ago with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Franz Brüggen. Zehetmair plays on an eighteenth-century Guadagnini violin that once belonged to the great Czech virtuoso Otokar Ševičik, said to have lost an eye when one of its strings broke. Concentration, not fear of injury, was doubtless the reason why Zehetmair stood motionless and with his eyes closed, as five bare, soft timpani strokes heralded in the main orchestral theme of the opening Allegro. Entering with a bold flourish of his bow, Zehetmair continued Beethoven’s sweeping melodic lines with an almost stratospheric purity of tone. A serenely played Larghetto, in which horns and woodwind provided the soloist with a rich and warm accompaniment, was followed by the Rondo finale, an irrepressible and finely coordinated folk dance by Zehetmair and the orchestra.

With trumpets and drums departed, the second half of the concert was devoted to one work – Schubert’s youthful Symphony No.5 in B flat, which the nineteen-year-old dedicated to ‘the immortal Mozart’. With lightness of touch, Herreweghe’s hands conjured a fresh and airy delicacy from the strings in the first movement Allegro, while the graceful combination of woodwind and strings in the Andante provided just the right combination of light and shade. A graceful Mozartian minuet in the third movement prepared us for the concert’s final reward – a joyful finale, brimming with elegance and élan.

Chris Sallon

For more about the Philharmonia Orchestra click here.

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