This was the opening concert of the Philharmonia’s 70th anniversary season, the orchestra’s inaugural concert having taken place exactly 70 years earlier, on 27 September 1945, under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. Proceedings on this occasion were directed by Christoph von Dohnányi, the orchestra’s Principal Conductor from 1997 to 2008 and now Honorary Conductor for Life.
The first half of the concert featured a fresh and compelling performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto by soloist Martin Helmchen. Spontaneity was the watchword of Helmchen’s approach, but never at the expense of rhythmic accuracy or the longer musical line. The concerto’s lyrical passages were played with warmth and affection, while the first movement’s cadenza offered a magnetic display of Helmchen’s virtuosity. The playing of the orchestra was refined and committed throughout, the main theme of the slow movement given a beautifully nuanced rendition by the ‘cellos.
Given the celebratory nature of the occasion, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a fitting choice for the second half and received a suitably memorable performance from Dohnányi, conducting entirely from memory and looking considerably younger than his 86 years. Dohnányi’s preference for antiphonal violins and a prominent woodwind balance evoked thoughts of a previous Philharmonia principal conductor, Otto Klemperer, especially in the steady, gaunt unfolding of the first movement. The main climax was delivered with elemental power, curiously reminding me of the storm section in Sibelius’s Tapiola, the timpani given a real workout by guest principal Adrian Bending. The Scherzo was similarly impressive, the playing both rhythmically precise and generating considerable tension.
The third movement brought a markedly different approach to Klemperer’s, however, Dohnányi adopting a swift tempo that blurred the difference between adagio and andante and saw the movement conclude in less than 12 minutes. Whilst reflecting Beethoven’s metronome indications, this approach seemed anomalous with what had gone before and undermined the sublimity of the music. This was a pity given the purity and sweetness of the string playing on offer and the quality of the solo for fourth horn later in the movement.
Matters were somewhat redeemed by the final movement, Dohnányi’s interpretation informed by clarity and vigour, the energetic orchestral playing now supported by spirited choral contributions from the Rodolfus Choir and Philharmonia Voices. The four soloists, bass James Rutherford, tenor Michael König, mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose and soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, were uniformly excellent, the latter singing her part entirely from memory. A real sense of momentum underpinned the performance and the conclusion was superbly energetic and joyous.