Uchida, Dausgaard and the Philharmonia: brilliant Beethoven, but patchy Sibelius fails to ignite

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Sibelius: Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.1.2024 (CSa)

Thomas Dausgaard and Dame Mitsuko Uchida © Marc Gascoigne/PO

Beethoven – Overture, Leonore No.2, Op.72(a); Piano Concerto No.2 in B-Flat major, Op.19

Sibelius Lemminkäinen Legends, Op.22

Two regularly featured works by Beethoven – his overture Leonora No.2 and second Piano Concerto made up the first half of the Philharmonia’s eagerly awaited Southbank concert last week, while Sibelius’s infrequently performed set of tone poems, Lemminkäinan Legends, dominated the second. Sadly, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the great Finnish conductor long associated with this work and this orchestra, tested positive for COVID earlier in the week, and was substituted at short notice by his equally redoubtable Danish counterpart, Thomas Dausgaard. On the podium, the authoritative Dausgaard cuts a statuesque and more physically constrained figure than Salonen, whose deftness and fluidity are signature characteristics, but it would be idle to speculate whether these radically contrasting conducting styles would have resulted in markedly different performances.

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra © Marc Gascoigne/PO

Under Dausgaard’s direction, Leonora No.2 proved to be a compact and dramatic curtain-raiser, with brooding strings, declarative brass and delicate warm woodwind ominously foreshadowing the dark intensity of Beethoven’s politically revolutionary opera. A lighter, but no less thoughtful note was struck by an outstanding account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2, in which the players, joined by the incomparable Dame Mitsuko Uchida, provided beautifully articulated and well-balanced support. Beethoven began to write this piano concerto (chronologically his first) in 1787 when he was just 17 years old, and although the composer’s individual voice can be heard to sing through the three movements, the work owes much to the earlier classical styles of Haydn and Mozart. Uchida’s approach followed suit. The first movement Allegro brimmed with youthful energy. After a lengthy introductory passage, and from the moment the nimble, dancing strings gave way to Uchida’s finely judged entry, this remarkable artist balanced virtuoso keyboard precision with Mozartian playfulness, grace and profundity. Even as the cascading Bach-like cadenza unfurled, each note was crystal clear. A purposefully slow, soulful and at times astonishingly soft Adagio yielded to mischievously joyful Rondo.

The second half of the concert uprooted us from the sunny, optimistic uplands of Beethoven’s youth, to the chill, musical landscapes of Sibelius’s homeland. ‘Music is for me,’ Sibelius declared, ‘like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces’. In his Lemminkäinen suite, the ‘pieces’ in question are drawn from four Finnish legends from the Kalevala (a supernatural world inhabited by mythic heroes, villains, magicians and river maidens), while the ‘picture’ he recreates is a series of tone poems of symphonic length and texture, the range of orchestral colour deployed in each ‘movement’ served to showcase the outstanding strengths of every section of this orchestra and gave rise to some gorgeous individual instrumental solos. Particularly memorable moments: the shimmering, undulating First and Second Violins in the second suite, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela; some hauntingly beautiful playing from the Philharmonia’s leader Zsolt–Tihamér Visontay and from Rebecca Kozam on the cor anglais in the third suite, The Swan of Tuonela; and notable contributions throughout from timpanist Antoine Siguré and his fellow percussionists. That said, Dausgaard’s pace and overall phrasing faltered on occasions, and for this member of the audience at least, the tension and drama essential to Sibelius’s epic were frequently absent. Others may disagree. As Sibelius famously said, ‘Pay no attention to what the critics say since there has never been a statue set up in honour of a critic’. Just a thought.

Chris Sallon

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