The Swedish Philharmonia make a welcome visit to Cadogan Hall

14/03/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Sibelius: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Swedish Philharmonia / Jaime Martín (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 13.3.2020. (CS)

Viktoria Mullova

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.107, ‘Reformation’
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.63
Sibelius – Symphony No.5 in Eb major Op.82

It was good to see the Swedish Philharmonia (aka the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, when performing on its home patch) on the stage of Cadogan Hall.  As if the threat that Brexit-related visa issues will restrict the freedom of movement of musicians and artists wasn’t depressing enough, concert halls and opera houses now face a potential, supposedly ‘virus-busting’, international lockdown.  Cultural life in the capital will surely be much quieter in the immediate future and less diverse thereafter.

The orchestra have been undertaking an eight-day tour of the UK, with their Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Jaime Martín, which has seen them travel from Leeds to Manchester, onto Cambridge, Cheltenham and Guildford, and which will conclude on Sunday at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.  Accompanying them has been London-based, Russian-born violinist Viktoria Mullova, performing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto.  It’s a long time since I heard Mullova play live but from the first notes of the solo violin’s unaccompanied melody at the start of the Allegro moderato the steely backbone of Mullova’s tone and technique were instantly recognisable.  It’s a lovely clear and unfussy sound, strong and muscular, with real focus and projection.  Its expressiveness lies in its pristineness and power.

Mullova has recorded this concerto twice, first in the 1980s with André Previn on the Philips label, and more recently, in 2015, for Onyx with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.  It’s seems tailor-made to her strengths.  The very simplicity of the opening theme enables her to demonstrate her lucid conception of phrasing and form.  Her clear vision was matched by Martín who drew some strong playing from the woodwind in particular, with great conviction shown by the horns.  As the music roved into more dissonant and complex realms Mullova retained a dignified elegance.

I have to say that Mullova’s interpretation of the Andante assai did not touch my heart quite so movingly as Gil Shaham at the Proms last year, with Yannick Nézet‐Séguin and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, but if there was less dreamy tenderness there was a serenity and a purposeful nobility, complemented by some fine clarinet playing.  The emotional restraint let the music speak for itself, and speak most persuasively.  Rhythmic and coloristic exuberance characterised the Allegro, ben marcato, and here Mullova was passionate but disciplined in negotiating Prokofiev’s angular challenges.  The Philharmonia percussion had a ball!

The concert had opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony, the second symphony he composed, but which he subsequently seems to have ‘disowned’.  Written to mark the 300th anniversary of the Confession of Augsburg – the event that established the Protestant Reformation when, on 25th June 1530 Martin Luther’s 28 Articles were presented to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V – it was, in fact, not first heard until two years later.  After the premiere, Mendelssohn never performed the Symphony again, and refused to allow its publication.

Sitting in the Gallery of Cadogan Hall, before we heard a note I found myself ruing the infrequency of opportunities to hear any of Mendelssohn’s symphonies; even the Scottish and Italian seem to be rarely programmed these days, and performances of the Reformation are scarcer still.  Jaime Martín’s real sense of both the form and the drama of the latter made this neglect seem even more of an injustice.  The introductory Andante allied elegance with a sense of gravity, the cellos and basses resonating with organ-like sonority.  At first the brass were a little too radiant, threatening to overpower the strings, but Martín quickly found a true balance.  Mendelssohn’s counterpoint can sometimes become a bit stolid and work-a-day (if my memories of playing the string symphonies are accurate) but here, in the Allegro con fuoco, it flew.  As Martín crafted lines of real clarity and the strings played with strongly defined tone, the intensity accumulated, and the movement acquired an almost operatic sense of drama.  The Allegro vivace was warm and not too fast.  In this and the third movement, Martín dispensed with his baton using his shoulders and elbows to nudge forward and dig in and down, while subtle hand gestures drew details from his musicians.

There was delicacy in the Andante but, thankfully, not whimsy or sentimentality: instead, there was a strong sense of narrative and direction, of different voices being drawn together and convincingly cohered.  The chorale-infused Allegro maestoso had grandeur and religiosity: terrific playing from the woodwind and tuba was enhanced by exciting trumpet contributions and vigorous string counterpoint.  The latter remained airy as Martín fluently thrust towards the brass-driven cadence.  That sense of ‘rightness’ and completion which one feels at the end of a Bach fugue, or Passion, was conjured here.

After the interval, we heard a clear-sighted and propulsive performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.  The warmth of the five horns’ opening flourish made one keenly anticipate the glorious so-called ‘swan theme’ that takes flight in the final movement.  Martín judged the tempi well: occasionally things moved more swiftly than is perhaps customary, but textures were finely spun, and if there was a sense of restlessness – all those fluttering ‘wings’ from the tremolo strings – it was never breathless, always disciplined.  The strings were subdued to a whisper to allow the bassoon to etch its mournful arcs, then injected with pulsing accents in an assertive unison.

Always there was a sense of an enormous energy driving from the depths, and of organic unfolding: cellos and doubles basses played with real conviction.  Martín’s heaving shoulders and wide arcs sculpted the opening of the Andante in broad breaths, but subsequently an agitation imbued the strings’ articulation, pushing ever forward.  And so, eventually, release did come, with the horns’ swinging, soaring theme: it’s one of those musical moments where it is surely impossible not to smile, even if inwardly.  At the close, Martín made us wait for each of the first four of the six closing chords, the tense pauses a collective holding of breath, the final two resolving blows a welcome and uplifting resolution.

The Swedish Philharmonia eased us into the night with a gentle rendition of the Entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde.  Here the fine rapport between Martín and his musicians was distilled: there was freedom and shared understanding in equal measure, the smallest of gestures were all that were needed to make compelling music.

I hope it is not too long before we see the Swedish musicians in London again.  I fear it will be.

Claire Seymour

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