Royal Festival Hall
Bartók – DivertimentoMozart – Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E-flat major, KV 364
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92
The Philharmonia’s closing concert of the 2014-15 season showed no sign of winding down, not that one would expect such from a conductor such as Christoph von Dohnányi. This was not the most ‘Hungarian’ of Bartók performances, but it was well considered, and, like any composer worthy of the name, Bartók does not benefit from being defined in nationalistic terms. The first movement offered alert, sometimes even febrile string playing. Climaxes and contrasting intimacies were very well shaped, rhythms not without a tellingly ominous quality. A broad emotional range, then, was traversed, as in the slow movement, whose contours were equally intelligible throughout. In the finale, the solo intrumentalists sounded especially impressive, quite beyond reproach. Counterpoint was admirably clear in a performance which, rightly, looked back to Bachian inspiration without ever losing sight of the composer’s inimitable voice.
Judging by the frequency of performances he has conducted of Mozart’s great E-flat major Sinfonia Concertante, Dohnányi is very fond of the work – and, frankly, who could fail to be? Its greatness, likewise, did not fail to announce itself from the orchestral tone and direction in the opening tutti. ‘Authenticity’ might never have happened; instead, solid, unfashionable, musical virtues were the order of the day. The Philharmonia’s evenness and beauty of tone during a long crescendo were certainly of a golden age. Arabella Steinbacher and Lawrence Power proved equally intelligent, sensitive, and gracious. Mozart is never an arena in which to attempt point-scoring, and it was never attempted here, but there was nothing bland to the performance either; the score was simply, or not so simply, treated with the respect it deserves. Chamber-like collaboration between the soloists was exemplary. Both of them took on, rightly, more of a solo voice in the Andante, which, as a whole, sounded ineffably sad, though never inappropriately bitter. A swift tempo for the finale worked well too; this was Apollonian Mozart, which yet did not lack anything in depth. (As Nietzsche put it, the Greeks ‘were superficial – out of profundity!’ Well, not quite like that, but anyway…) Mozart’s symmetries and his formal dynamism came together as only so fine a performance of his music can possibly suggest.
Nowadays, conducting Beethoven convincingly seems as tall an order as doing so for Mozart. It is good, therefore, to report that Dohnányi passed the test with flying colours – perhaps because he had nothing to prove. The first movement’s introduction offered both weight and delicacy. Although slightly on the slow side for what many are used to today, it was certainly none the worse for that. Crucially, every note sounded necessary. (That ought to go without saying, but alas does not.) Whilst it is doubtless fanciful to think of this too emphatically as Klemperer’s old orchestra, the thought would not quite leave me alone. Dohnányi’s handling of the transition to the exposition was that of an old (in the nicest sense!) pro: almost imperceptible. And then, came true exhilaration; there was no mistaking the vigour in the Philharmonia’s playing, nor its freshness. Form was dynamic, as it must be, and yet so rarely is. Double basses sounded duly weird and goal-oriented in the celebrated coda. When the movement had come to a close, I found myself astonished at its concision, almost as if it had been the first movement of the Fifth. The second movement flowed with a typical lack of showiness, although I could have done without an intervention from mobile telephone. Inevitability – difficult to describe, but impossible to mistake – was the properly Beethovenian characteristic, bar that intervention from another world. The music seemed to encompass tragedy, without being narrowly defined by it. Rhythm offered absolute security for the movement’s foundations, upon which composer and performers could build. The Scherzo was very fast, without sounding harried, its Trio providing relative relief, but no drop in tension. How was that possible? In a word: harmony. Joy won out in the finale, although this was no easy victory. Tradition, not as mere Mahlerian Schlamperei, but understood in a properly Catholic, developmental sense, also proved a victor. So too did Beethoven.