Royal Festival Hall
Weber – Der Freischütz: Overture
Schumann – Symphony no.1 in B-flat major, op.38, ‘Spring’
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)
The renown of both the Philharmonia and Christoph von Dohnányi has always been founded upon core German repertoire. It was fitting then that this programme of German Romanticism should open with the overture to Der Freischütz, the clarion call for that movement in music. Immediately striking was the depth of tone to the Philharmonia’s strings: no fashionable scaling down here, with a section ranging from sixteen first violins to eight double basses, the odd sign of violin fallibility serving to illustrate general excellence. The warmth of truly Romantic horns was equally welcome. Dohnányi’s was a decidedly symphonic conception: fair enough, given that this was a symphony concert and the overture was therefore being treated as a concert overture. Early on, I felt an occasional four-squareness, but hair was let down in the final rejoicing, with an accelerando that threatened to turn Furtwänglerian, even if it just held back from doing so.
Dóhnanyi reduced the double bass complement to six for Schumann’s First Symphony (likewise for the Brahms Violin Concerto); otherwise, the strings remained constant. Again, this marked welcome refusal to condescend to fashion – and, more importantly, recognition that the crucial determinant of orchestral forces should be hall size, not incoherent dogma. We seem to have moved from a situation in which Schumann’s orchestration was generally excoriated to one in which it is claimed that all one needs to do is drastically to reduce the size of orchestra; neither case seems to me to have much merit. Throughout, Dohnányi concentrated upon delineation of structure, his handling of the transition from first movement introduction to exposition proving especially impressive, imparting a sense of Beethovenian purpose here and in the development, even when Schumann arguably falls a little short. Split violins echoed each other nicely; there was room to enjoy the sometimes colourful view too. Not every crack could be papered over, especially when it came to the recapitulation, but there is only so much a conductor can accomplish here. The slow movement was beautifully sung, not fashionably rushed. Cellos were especially rich in tone, whilst the delectable woodwind section hinted at Brahms. In the scherzo, Schumann was placed, aptly, midway between Beethoven and Brahms, whilst the rustic response to the opening bars proved utterly charming. Metrical dislocations were felt without the diminishing returns of exaggeration. Brahms again came to the fore in the finale; I was especially put in mind of the parallel movement in his Second Symphony. Perhaps most impressive was the buoyant sense of fun achieved, without compromise to structural integrity. Once again, Schumann’s mood swings registered without attention-seeking exaggeration.
Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra for the Brahms concerto. Though I had heard of her, this was the first time I had encountered her in performance, whether ‘live’ or on record. I was most impressed – and equally so by the orchestral contribution. Dohnányi elicited Romantic depth from the Philharmonia, married to properly Classical clarity and structural command. Steinbacher sounded the perfect partner to this approach, her silken sweetness redolent of another age; indeed, one could fancy her opening flourish Joachim-like. Though capable of greater toughness when required, hers was not an overtly ‘masculine’ approach such as one might hear from, say, Nikolaj Znaider or Anne-Sophie Mutter. There was occasional loss, perhaps, but this verges upon carping for its own sake; it is better, I think, to acknowledge that one performance is unlikely, arguably unable, to encompass all possibilities proffered by a masterwork. Certainly there was never the slightest doubt from all musicians concerned that the greater line would ever be sacrificed. And how the second subject sang, whether from violin or orchestra! There was power in the tutti passages, but beautiful orchestral shading too. Above all, the music-making sounded ‘natural’, unforced. The cadenza displayed not only perfect double-stopping intonation but unerringly musical phrasing. Applause, seemingly initiated by a single demonstrative figure in the choir, won but a few adherents; nevertheless, it was as unwelcome as it was immediate. The slow movement was beautifully judged. Dohnányi demonstrated that ‘flowing’ need not mean precipitate and need not preclude sensitive tempo fluctuation. Wind lines – and not just the oboe, fine though Gordon Hunt’s solo certainly was – were warm and inviting, well married to Steinbacher’s sweetness of tone and parallel abilities to sing and to shape a phrase. The abiding impression of the finale was once again of a perfect balance between the Classical and the Romantic. Though the ‘Hungarian’ quality was real enough, motivic articulation was never compelled to take a back seat. I can imagine that some might have found the movement as a whole just a little ‘controlled’; I was happy to appreciate its symphonism. As an encore, Steinbacher offered Fritz Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo, almost managing to convince one that it might justly serve as a pendant to Brahms.