Christoph von Dohnnyi’s concert with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall was a pleasingly programmed and cleanly played affair.
The weird motivic contours of Thomas Ads’ Asyla and the emotional ambiguities of Brahms’ Second Symphony opened and closed the concert.
Between them, what was for most the main draw of the concert, Alfred Brendel performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.
Brendel has played and recorded the work countless times, yet there was no hint of routine in his performance. Every bar was fresh and enlivened, caressed by that famously thoughtful and expressive touch. The piano opening of the Largo froze the hall: each chord seemed suspended in the air. There was a chamber music intimacy and a highly personal retrospection about the entire performance.
But something didn’t add up. In the Allegro con brio, Brendel tended to dash ahead of the beat, creating discombobulating coordination problems. In the Largo, Dohnnyi illuminated the woodwind but lacked a progressive vision from the first bar to last. I found the movement a little tedious. The Rondo was superbly played but I felt more and more uncomfortable with the acoustic, which dampened and darkened the piano’s tone, consequently submerging it beneath the orchestra on many an occasion. It was still a highly enjoyable performance but, for me, it wasn’t an unreserved success.
After the interval, Brahms’ Second Symphony was given a steadily paced, very involving reading. The Allegro non troppo‘s soaring lyricism was undercut by effectively understated and slimy trombone chords. The cellos were superb in an especially intense and emotive Adagio non troppo. But after all Dohnnyi’s hard work on architecture and texture in these movements, the backbone of the symphony, I could have done with more nuance in the Allegro con spirito. The final brass rockets excited, but the rest of the movement tended to plod.
It was Asyla that stuck in the mind. Even here, it wasn’t plain sailing. The first couple of movements were a tad clinical in their execution (though arguably this is a fault of the composer). But then the pounding drum rhythms and syncopated brass motifs of Ecstasio started up: here was memorable, highly charged playing, each note pregnant with suggestion. It’s performances like these that make you realise just why Thomas Ads is so admired. His music is a gift to a great orchestra and, here, the Philharmonia were on top form.