Royal Festival Hall
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.21 in C major, KV 467
Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’
Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)
At about the time this concert was due to start, a team of stagehands arrived to move centre stage Angela Hewitt’s Fazioli piano. The programme had been billed to open with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, but Alastair Mackie, chairman and principal trumpet of the Philharmonia, now had to announce a change in the running order. Mozart’s twenty-first piano concerto would now open the concert, since one of the clarinettists had arrived at the Royal Festival Hall with only half of his instrument. That would give time for the other half to arrive.
Whether this alteration threw Angela Hewitt, I do not know, but she suffered one glaring memory lapse in the first movement and another noticeable slip in the finale. Otherwise, her passage work ‘flowed like oil,’ as Mozart famously wished, though there was an apparent want of depth beneath the beautiful surface: Mozart as Meissen china. I suspect that the bright tone of her favoured Fazioli, lacking the depth of a Steinway or indeed the silvery quality of a Bösendorfer, contributed to that impression. The Philharmonia under Christoph von Dohnányi was in chamber orchestra mode, with but ten first violins down to three double basses. Hewitt’s and/or Dohnányi’s tempo for the first movement was faster than stately, but not rushed: a relief. The cadenza was Hewitt’s own; I was not entirely convinced, but she had to endure, as did the entire performance, a great deal of coughing. There was some delectable woodwind playing, perhaps especially during the slow movement, but also elsewhere, and the pizzicato strings proved noteworthy too in unanimity and beauty of tone. Dohnányi’s command of line was notable, though one perhaps only noticed it in retrospect, for his was not an interventionist performance. Hewitt embellished the text quite freely, not always to welcome effect, whether in the slow movement or the finale. Paul Badura-Skoda’s cadenza was employed in the latter movement: some odd modulations, I thought, but at least it did not outstay its welcome.
If the Mozart were a curate’s egg, better orchestrally than pianistically, the delayed Schubert symphony proved an unalloyed success. Dohnányi employed a much bigger orchestra, the eight-strong double bass complement immediately audible. This was a weighty reading in the best sense: full of import and direction, thanks again to the conductor’s command of line. Taking the first movement’s exposition repeat again stressed its stature, whilst the development opened up Mahlerian vistas – and abysses. Consolation was not yet to be had. The recapitulation was just as it should be, Schubert’s material transformed by what had gone before. Sweetness was counterbalanced by ominous tread in the second movement, properly unsettling. The clarinet solo, when it came, made one appreciate why we had had to wait; indeed, the Philharmonia’s woodwind section was distinguished all round. Deep strings formed the bedrock of the symphonic contest, for this was to be a hard won battle, ultimately enabling the music to float away blissfully, as if on the verge of breathing the Schoenbergian air of another planet.
A slighter larger string section again was employed for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, first violins increasing from fourteen to sixteen. Dohnányi went straight down to business, the fabled opening motif sounding almost as soon as he ascended the podium. Division of violins paid dividends when it came to thematic development, likewise again the conductor’s sense of line. The extraordinary concision of the first movement hit home, heightened in a sense by the rare luxury of the oboe’s cadenza, finely performed by Gordon Hunt. What ultimately this movement and the symphony as a whole lacked was a sense of metaphysical battle. Musically impeccable though it was – and this contrasts with a great number of contemporary renditions – was it quite the triumph of the human spirit it might be? Furtwängler remained distant. The slow movement flowed, perhaps a little too much: beautiful, but what did it mean? On the other hand, it is a rare thing now to have a conductor who can hear it in one breath, so there was much for which to be grateful. Throughout, the Philharmonia played gloriously. The scherzo’s reprise was properly ghostly, though it and still more that holiest of holies, the transition to the finale, were ruined by mass bronchial intervention from the audience. When the finale came, it did not quite seem that the gates of heaven were being stormed. A little more rhetoric would have helped, as perhaps would a slightly more relaxed tempo. There was little or no perceptible tempo variation, though Beethoven spoke pretty well for himself. If not the Beethoven Fifth of one’s dreams, whether of a Furtwängler or Klemperer persuasion, there remained a palpable sincerity and integrity to Dohnányi’s conception. Flowing lava or implacable granite were replaced by something more ‘objective’, but there was no grandstanding, no empty showmanship.