Overture, Nightride and Sunrise
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4
most rarely played tone poem, Overture, Nightride and Sunrise,
seemed almost alien to von Dohnányi, who conducted the work more
as a sedate canter in Rotten Row than a gallop through a wild forest.
His reading was detached and curiously clinical, lacking mystery, sparkle
and drama; it was only in the Sunrise section that he became
emotionally committed. The Philharmonia strings were divided and produced
a rich solid body of intense sound; they were in far better form than
last season and at last the double basses and cellos had weight and
temperament was better suited to the Brahms Violin Concerto. His soloist,
the German Frank Peter Zimmermann, playing the ‘ex Dragonetti’ Stradivarius
(1760), made this old war-horse sound astonishingly fresh and modern,
avoiding the usual romantic mannerisms. He floated phrases with
seamless ease, making his playing appear effortless yet vital.
In the opening Allegro non troppo his playing of the cadenza
was both suavely subtle and menacingly dark; seldom
have I heard such a variation of mood, colour and sensation in this
movement. In the Adagio Zimmerman was wonderfully reserved, perfectly
complimented by poetic phrasing from the woodwind. Dohnányi’s
accompaniment was sensitive and restrained, eschewing fussy embellishments.
In the final Allegro Zimmerman switched mood to a spiky, almost
gypsy inflexion. Dohnányi lifted him and the orchestra to a triumphant
launched Brahms’ 4th Symphony like a leisurely, laid back lullaby, allowing
the strings to sing and slide like the rhythm of the sea, with the woodwind
interjections acting like the sun glittering and reflecting on the water.
The only irritating mannerism was Dohnányi’s perverse hesitation,
holding back the strings to achieve a delayed, arrested effect
reminiscent of Furtwängler. The movement ended with beautifully
played timpani: solid, firm but never loud or brash. The Adante moderato
was perfectly paced with wonderfully rich string tone. Dohnányi
never milked this movement by slowing the tempo, resisting the temptation
to milk the mood, a besetting sin of many conductors of this work.
giocoso had brio and bite, and one could hear all the textures come
through, thanks to the conductor’s thorough understanding of orchestral
balance. The 32 variations of the passacaglia opened with powerfully
punctuating trombones and timpani: very often this sounds smudged but
this conductor got his players to perform with chamber-like clarity.
As the movement unfolded so Dohnányi slowly built up the speed
and tension bringing a real sense of urgency, thrusting the music forward
to its almost defiantly manic conclusion. Many conductors slow down
just before the end, which is misguided; Dohnányi got it right,
in the manner of Toscanini and Klemperer. The result was a memorable
and mesmerising performance, with the Philharmonia on top form and playing
as if possessed.