Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Sokhiev @ Royal Festival Hall, London

29 January 2009

Although only 31, the Ossetian conductor Tugan Sokhiev has been a guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra since 2002.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

As might be expected from a graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatory, Sokhiev is a fine conductor of Tchaikovsky, as he proved in this concert.

Opening the otherwise all-Tchaikovsky programme, however, was Berlioz’s overture Le corsaire (The Pirate). Sokhiev’s performance was very successful in capturing the jaunty, extrovert nature of Berlioz’s composition, and the orchestra contributed playing notable for its clarity, energy and tonal refinement.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was performed by James Ehnes, a Canadian violinist whose recording of the Elgar concerto won a 2008 Gramophone award. Ehnes brings an impressive technique and a strong sense of discipline to his playing as well as sense of poise and nobility. I must admit I found his interpretation of the first two movements of the concerto slightly reserved, especially in comparison with the warm, empathetic accompaniment provided by Sokhiev. However, Ehnes came into his own in the finale, with playing of splendid virtuosity and zest. As an encore, he provided a performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No 2.

Sokhiev’s rapport with the Philharmonia Orchestra was ably demonstrated by the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony which concluded the concert. Tempos were fairly swift throughout, but this was otherwise an uncontroversial interpretation, with Sokhiev eschewing any untoward tempo and dynamic changes. What distinguished this performance was the combination of virtuosity, unanimity and commitment that Sokhiev secured from the orchestra.

My notes from the concert include numerous comments such as “excellent bassoons”, “heartbreaking oboe” and “volcanic trombones”. Perhaps there was a slightly lack of cumulative emotional thrust in the symphony as whole, but nevertheless this was a cultured and satisfying interpretation.

Some of the players looked exhausted at the end of the concert, but they were awarded a rapturous reception by the audience, clearly appreciative of an orchestra playing at the top of its very considerable game.

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