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PROMS 2002

S & H Concert Review

Sibelius & Brahms, Frank Peter Zimmermann (vln), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, Royal Festival Hall, 24th September 2002 (AR)


SIBELIUS: Overture, Nightride and Sunrise
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4


Sibelius’s 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 significance.

Dohnányi’s 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 conclusion.

Dohnanyi 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.

The Allegro 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. 

Alex Russell


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