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Mozart, Bruckner:  Benjamin Schmid (violin); Rachel Roberts (viola); Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi. Royal Festival Hall, 30.10. 2008 (CC)

We’ve all heard the jokes, even though we may deny ever having told them. Viola players get a bum deal, generally, so what a delight it is to give first – and star – mention to the viola player Rachel Roberts (Co-Principal of the Philharmonia) for her role in the Mozart Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, K364. She brought back memories of, and dare I say it eclipsed, Bashmet in recital at the Barbican in 2003. Roberts’ phrasing throughout was fluent and, above all, natural, contrasting with Benjamin Schmid’s rather more interventionist approach. The last time I encountered Schmid was in the same hall back in 2003, where he gave a good but not great account of the Berg Concerto. Interestingly, I complained then of some weakness in his lower register, and the point could be repeated here in 2008 with validity. The difference between the two soloists could be summed up by pointing to Schmid’s rather severe outlook as against Roberts’ more humane persona, approaches typified by the two players’ approach to ornaments: Schmid rather studied, Roberts’ always natural, never strained or guilty of crushing notes. Nevertheless, there was a real sense of dialogue between the soloists (even, towards the end of the first movement, a sense of intimate dialogue).

Roberts’ lines were consistently more emotionally telling in the central Andante than Schmid’s. Together, the two soloists made a brighter sound in the finale than did the orchestra, a shame in a sense as it highlighted the difference in quality between soloists and rather lacklustre accompaniment. Dohnányi’s contribution carried a fair amount of internal energy but featured an over-smooth approach that spoke of an old school no longer relevant.

The Bruckner Fourth Symphony was less than the sum of its parts. The Philharmonia is one of the great orchestras, and one could only sit amazed at the beautifully balanced, glorious brass chorales, the creditable hunting horns of the Scherzo and the imposing tutti unisons of the finale. But the conductor simply did not seem to understand the architectural forces at work here; neither did he bring forth much bucolic atmosphere when called for, and, generally, the tenderness index was at an all-time low, a particular problem in the “Andante quasi allegretto” second movement. The juxtaposition of themes in the finale could have been more marked, too – but then again, with such a weak structural grasp, had Dohnányi attempted this, it would probably just have sounded patchwork. A great shame. The finale felt long-winded, as, indeed, the booklet notes implied it would. Listen to Klemperer (EMI) for a necessary corrective if you attended this concert.

Colin Clarke

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