Sunwook Kim’s superlative Brahms rescues an underwhelming Philharmonia Orchestra concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Brahms, R. Schumann: Sunwook Kim (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Alexandre Bloch (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.5.2024. (MBr)

Sunwook Kim playing with the LSO in 2023 © Mark Allan

Wagner – ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’, from Das Rheingold
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major
R. Schumann – Symphony No.3, ‘Rhenish’

As Oscar Wilde wrote, to lose one parent is unfortunate to lose two is carelessness. Of course, in the music world it is rarely the second of these, but it has become quite in London these days to lose both your scheduled soloist and your conductor – this was my second in three concerts. In the case of the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, however, it doesn’t seem quite so straightforward. His continuing visa difficulties are frustrating – obviously for him, and also for audiences. He seems to be a patient young man – but how tenable is this, and when does enough become enough?

Trifonov was due to have played the Brahms B-flat major – and it is a concerto he is currently playing elsewhere (Los Angeles, February) – and he does happen to be exceptionally fine in this work. Our loss. His replacement, the London-based Korean, Sunwook Kim, had little difficulty filling the Royal Festival Hall – thanks, in part, to a rather large number of his compatriots in the audience – and that turned out to be an exceptional performance of the Brahms. Our gain, I guess. But more of that in a moment.

With Vladimir Jurowski’s searing Götterdämmerung still fresh in my mind from five days earlier, I probably had exceptionally unrealistic expectations for the opening work on this Philharmonia programme. Coming from the first part of the Ring cycle, and the very close of it, ‘The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ was, to say the least, underwhelming. Context in Wagner matters and you have had over two hours-plus to get to this point but the contrasts between a conductor who knows how to get a Wagner sound (Jurowski) and one who doesn’t (Alexandre Bloch) were palpable. Rather than restraint to achieve any sense of tautness, we got too much looseness in the technique. String tone was uneven, weightless – something which, admittedly, would have needed quite a different kind of seating and platforming had Bloch wished to get something close to Jurowski’s London Philharmonic strings. Bloch gets the orchestra to play substantially after the beat but you would hardly have noticed this from the Wagner. I think the gods limped into Valhalla here.

Almost exactly a year ago I heard Sunwook Kim play Brahms’s D minor concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall. That was a superlative performance. If anything, this one of the B-flat major was even finer. It was jaw-droppingly good – and I tended to agree with my companion at this concert that it came close to being amongst the greatest we had heard of this concerto live. This ferociously difficult concerto I find one of the more difficult works in the repertoire to review. A poor performance can make me very indifferent to the concerto; on the other hand, a great one can make me entirely forget about any critical reasons why I am listening to it: I just enjoy it for the great masterpiece that it is and am entirely absorbed it.

The last time I reviewed the Brahms for Seen and Heard (Pavel Kolesnikov, December 2023) there were two noticeable problems with the performance: an overzealousness (bordering on rage) at the keyboard, and heavy-footed pedalling – ‘impending disaster’ at the opening, as I described it. Sunwook Kim was much more subtle, although never once did you forget that this is a work of tremendous scale with some of the most torrential power of any concerto ever written.

In the first movement, Kim certainly didn’t lack volume – but he also gave a wonderful space for the notes to breath, the hands often never too close to the keyboard just to cluster notes. Octave runs, that can sometimes sound like a bareknuckle ride, had a clarity going down the keyboard; triplet chords in the coda were fabulous. But in a movement that can so easily fracture, Kim held on to the arc that held it together so it flowed from one theme to another. All the more extraordinary in a performance which managed to contain playing of explosive arpeggios, thick bass chords and descending triplets that vaulted across the keyboard in a melded world of conflict and refinement. That tempest that often rages between the soloist and the orchestra – sometimes in the shape of a joint cadenza – was often sublime. The tension he created was really quite remarkable.

There was something rather lyrical to Kim’s handling of the scherzo movement – a litheness that perhaps had feline stretches of suppleness in the fingers that rather suited the more sweeping tempo he brought to the movement. A passage of octaves almost seemed to gallop across the keyboard; the pianissimo octaves that Brahms writes (of astonishing difficulty to play) miraculous in their weight. The coda to this movement always comes as a surprise in a sense – it was powerful, majestic.

Perhaps no movement is more ‘symphonic’ than the third – the cello and oboe hauntingly mirroring the piano. Does one get reverence or indifference from the pianist? In part Kim played towards the former, although not always in favour of either the cello or the oboe. One sometimes sensed it more with the clarinets, for example – Kim picked out the clarinet theme in the middle section of the movement rather beautifully to my ears. But this was organic playing of the highest order, as carefully attuned as to what was on going on around the soloist as within the performance itself.

The rondo can sometimes be a little anticlimactic – an afterthought in performances that have reached such scale in the preceding movement. Its skittishness brought a playfulness out of Kim, and a swiftness – notes rippled down and up the keyboard. If it all seemed in harmony – and in perspective to what had been played before it – it was absolutely done to perfection. There were no quibbles with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing; nor with Alexandre Bloch’s more than perceptive conducting of the concerto, although whether gestures such as disappearing behind the piano almost to his knees actually achieved anything was debatable.

Kim’s encore – Brahms’s A major Intermezzo Op.118, No.2 – was both a generous one, and beautifully done.

I suppose if there was a theme to this concert it was works with unusual movement structures. If the concerto had four movements, then the symphony in the second half had five.

We will never know what Santtu-Matias Rouvali would have made of Robert Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony but it was competently conducted by Bloch who was able to integrate the rather wayward five movements into an organic whole, almost as if it were a symphony in one movement, with each movement having the necessary forward thrusting drive. It was perhaps a little unfortunate that the drive of the conductor did not translate into the drive of the Philharmonia, which often lacked any whatsoever.

Bloch conducted with those stridently expressive balletic gestures we had largely had in the Wagner and Brahms, but in the Schumann – of all places – he was unable to galvanise his players to match his flamboyant full-hearted emotions. The playing was on the lacklustre side. Strings were rather astringent, especially double basses.

Lebhaft (‘lively’) is Schumann’s marking for the first movement, but there was nothing at all ‘lively’ here; rather it was on the coy side. With the timpani writing ‘knitting’ the first movement together, ‘hard sticks’ would have been a better choice; given Bloch’s willingness to try and project so much from the orchestra this was a weakness in the performance. The Scherzo: Sehr mässig, ‘Morning on the Rhine’, was more like a rainy afternoon day beside the Thames, the orchestra playing with little flow or lilting grace; when the horns appeared it was through mist and clouds, the glow of sunlight missing.

The serene and sedate Feierlich (Nicht schnell) fell flat, more funereal rather than ceremonial. If the opening lacked solemnity and majestic glow – perhaps pre-empting Elgar – they also seemed a little opaque; ironically, the horns tended to play more stridently, but not quite in the right way. As wonderfully menacing as the final bars of this movement are supposed to be – an awesome volley of assertive timpani rolls – furtiveness is surely not what Schumann had in mind.

In the concluding ‘open-air’ movement, the conductor and orchestra often seemed to part like Moses and the Red Sea. Partly a lost plot, there was a lack of urgency and decisiveness in the brass and timpani. If an orchestra sounded like it was miles away from both its conductor and the music then, unfortunately, it was here.

A regrettable ending to a concert which had one of the most memorable Brahms concerto performances of recent years.

Marc Bridle

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