Sunday, 27 April 2008

Berg and Mahler, Zimmermann/Philharmonia/Dohnányi, 27 April 2008

Royal Festival Hall

(Christoph von Dohnányi’s final concert as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra)

Berg – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)

I have for some time admired Frank Peter Zimmermann as one of the most musical – in every sense – violinists of his generation. Having recently heard his relatively new recording of the Busoni Violin Concerto and Violin Sonata no.2 – very fine indeed – I was eager to hear him in the Berg concerto, not least since I had just missed hearing him perform it earlier in the season in Berlin with Bernard Haitink. I was not disappointed. I noticed something upon which I had remarked on hearing Zimmermann perform the Beethoven concerto with the LSO, again under Haitink, namely, that a work whose ‘concerto’ elements can often be lost suddenly had them found, albeit with no loss whatsoever to the ‘symphonic’ thread. The sense of give and take, including a supremely natural rubato, with the orchestra was faultless, which of course does great credit to the Philharmonia and Christoph von Dohnányi too. Early on, the work’s triple-time rhythms evinced a veritably post-Mahlerian swing, tossed between soloist and orchestra, and often shared.

For sometimes Zimmermann was first among equals, not least in an exquisite duet during the third movement with the principal viola; but he could equally be the Romantic soloist, standing in opposition to the orchestra. The supreme versatility of Berg’s twelve-note technique is demonstrated by the fact that it invites or rather demands both approaches, necessitating both horizontal and vertical understanding of the score. Technically Zimmermann’s account was flawless. The combination of double-stopping and pizzicato held no fears for him, although there was nothing showy about his application. His sweetness of tone and expressive vibrato were beautiful indeed, the latter especially notable – and rapid – upon the violin part’s long, held final note. It sounded, if this be possible, as if it were spun from silver. The clarity Dohnányi brought to the orchestral part was rare indeed, although I should make clear that this entailed no loss of tonal warmth. Indeed, the Philharmonia sounded so much better in every respect than when I had last heard it (in January, under Vladimir Ashkenazy), that it was difficult to believe that it was the same orchestra. If string tone has often been considered the Achilles heel of London orchestras, it certainly was not on this occasion, when we were treated to a sound that was thoroughly central European. Moreover, the woodwind statement of the harmonised Bach chorale was, quite simply, perfect in its organ-like blend. The chorale, needless to say, truly grew out of what had gone before, a further tribute to Berg’s technique, and to the players’ application thereof. And the concerto ended with a truly redemptive halo, as distant from tonal saccharine as one could imagine, yet not fearing to make the attempt to reconcile.

Dohnányi’s skill as an orchestral trainer, of which members of the orchestra spoke in a programme article, was once again displayed to great advantage in Mahler’s First Symphony. That the Philharmonia again sounded thoroughly mitteleuropäisch is testament enough to his influence and to the recounted scrupulousness of his rehearsal technique. For in the concert itself, this sounded like the most natural thing in the world, not in any sense appliqué. Likewise the celebrated – notorious? – harmonics of the symphony’s opening bars: as warm of tone as they were secure of pitch. The sound from beyond of responding brass brought an apt sense of Freischütz magic, which continued into the material from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. It was enjoyable too, with a thoroughly idiomatic Schwung. There were baleful moments too, of course, including the sounding of a splendidly ghost-like harp and the horns’ intimations of the horrors of the final movement. However – and this was a supreme characteristic of the performance as a whole – the mood of the moment never detracted from a greater sense of line; instead, the two dialectically enhanced one another.

The second movement was a Ländler from the outset. Cellos and double basses really dug into their strings, complemented by impeccably rustic woodwind. There were also some finely-judged portamenti. In the busy nature of its counterpoint – crystal-clear yet tonally refulgent – there were intimations of the Fifth Symphony, and the horn’s transition to the trio briefly suggested the Seventh’s Nachtmusik. There could be no doubt that Dohnányi knew the Mahlerian corpus, although my Lob des hohen Verstandes should not be taken to imply pedantic reference (at least on his part). Careful control over dynamic contrasts presented a myriad of colours, distinct from each other yet nevertheless related. Delightful hints of Schubert dances surfaced. The movement reached its climax with a splendid antiphonal exchange between horns and trumpets, another occasion taken for the Philharmonia’s brass to excel. After this, the opening of the third movement was eerie indeed. Solo double bass and kettledrum were spot on with their contributions, as indeed would be every canonical entrant. The inexorable build up of tension was very well managed here by Dohnányi. Interludes were evocative yet always integrated into the greater whole, especially the lovely yet haunting passage referring again to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. There was a wonderful sense of ominous transformation when the Bruder Martin theme returned in a different key.

And then, Hell broke loose, all the more effectively for the rounded rather than hysterical sound of the orchestral tutti. The music was allowed to speak for itself, and speak for itself it did. There were, thankfully, no podium theatrics from the conductor; this is a symphony, not a ballet. Even the stereophonic kettledrums provided more of an aural than a visual feast. The D-flat major episode brought some heart-rending, indeed heart-stopping Sehnsucht, making the return of Hell all the more terrifying, if short-lived. Thereafter the instability of the to-ing and fro-ing between the F minor material of the opening and the destination tonality of D major was marvellously handled, perfectly aware of the tonal opposition and therefore resisting needless italicisation. When the horns finally did scream, leading us into D major proper and soon therefore resuming their earlier nobility, they were all the more powerful for not previously having shot their bolt. There was an apt sense of exhausted heaviness in the lead up to the final triumph, which thereby sounded all the more exultant – and hair-raising. To accomplish this, the climax needs to have been judged musically rather than emotionally, or rather the two should be coterminous. Here they were. At this stage, the minor theatrics of the eight horns standing – with good historical warrant, mind you – were justified, for this conclusion had been musically prepared. And so came to a fitting conclusion what was certainly the best concert performance of Mahler’s First Symphony I have heard: ‘objective’ in some senses perhaps, but all the stronger for it. So came to an equally fitting conclusion Dohnányi’s tenure as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia, although he will return in the autumn as Honorary Conductor for Life.