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Beethoven, Dvořák, Brahms: David Cohen (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.5.2009 (GDn)

Beethoven: Overture, Coriolan Op. 62
Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor Op. 104
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68

Booking section principals as concerto soloists was a popular cost cutting measure in the mid 1990s when orchestral finances were at a perilously low ebb. It’s rare enough today that more noble motivations can be safely assumed. But artistically it is always a low risk plan, a known quantity with little danger of inflated ego problems. David Cohen, the Philharmonia’s principle cellist and the soloist in tonight’s performance of the Dvorak concerto demonstrated the best and the worst of the strategy. His communication with the orchestra, and with its long associated ‘Honorary Conductor for Life’ Christoph von Dohnányi, was impressive. He is also sensitive to the mores of Dvorak’s style, balancing classical rigour with folksy playfulness without compromise to either. But his years in the rank and file have instilled a discipline that ill befit a soloist. Deferring to the conductor on matters of rubato and tempo create impressive ensemble, but little of the interplay between orchestra and soloist that drives the genre. And many aspects of his performance practice betray his background. Effective vibrato within a string section requires exaggeration, but in the hands of a soloist, the same technique comes across as lack of subtly, it’s either on or off. But for all this, the work was given a satisfying reading. As concertos go, it is at the symphonic end of the spectrum so is better suited than most to less ego-driven interpretation.

The other works on the programme, Beethoven’s Coriolan overture and the First Symphony of Brahms were also both well within the comfort zone in terms of interpretive decisions. The standards of the orchestral playing were considerably higher at the back of the stage than the front, and special mentions should go to the trombones and to the horn section, especially their young guest principle horn Elspeth Dutch. The double basses also had a good night. They were seated in a group at the back to the conductor’s left, an acoustically advantageous position on the revamped RFH stage. The opening passages of both the Beethoven and the Brahms were infused with an impressively dark intensity through the precision and timbral focus of the double bass sound. The ensemble in the upper strings did not excel in the same way. Not bad as such, nor inaccurate in terms of intonation or attack, but nor was it of the high standard that this ensemble regularly achieves.

Both the Brahms and the Dvorak were presented as sweeping symphonic canvases, and there was never any danger of attention to the details obscuring the bigger picture. To be fair, there were passages that benefited from this approach. The opening movements of both works seem to play out their respective composers’ Beethoven complexes, struggling to compete with their overbearing predecessor in terms of dramatic, minor key intensity. A commitment to the drama is probably more important than a commitment to the detail, and the gravitas and dramatic weight of these movements was brilliantly conveyed, despite the lack of timbral or contrapuntal detail. In many ways this was an interpretation from a bygone age, before the likes of Norrington, Gardiner and Harnoncourt demonstrated  how the music of Brahms in particular could benefit from performance practices linked the earlier music he revered. Brahms may have been a traditionalist, but performances that present his music as merely old fashioned do it no justice at all.

Gavin Dixon

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