The Philharmonia Residency opened 2017 with a concert featuring two artists new to the city, Domingo Hindoyan, the Venezuelan/ Swiss conductor, and the violinist Michael Barenboim. Both are centred in Germany but already have flourishing international careers and one can see why on the evidence of this concert.
It is a great pleasure to find the son of a famous father exhibiting a very individual musical personality, which on this limited evidence seemed to convey quiet confidence and a determination to seek out the centre of a piece of music. In his performance of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, it was immediately clear that there was going to be no attempt to emulate the big sound of some Russian virtuosi. The quiet lyrical opening to the concerto was very quiet indeed and the movement’s brittle middle section perhaps might be thought by some to have lacked the last degree of panache. However, the advantage of this approach, the warmth of tone and the musicality of the phrasing, made one sharply aware of just how lyrically rich is much of the material of this concerto, both here and in the third movement. Often the violin truly sings. Even the brilliant Scherzo is not the composer at his most sarcastic and Barenboim extracted its wit and good humour in a way that more overtly virtuosic in your face performances do not always achieve. One finished by thinking, as the work drew to its quietly beautiful ending with violin followed by flute , that one had heard a performance which indicated a profound understanding of the concerto and one that revealed much of its heart.
The purely orchestral items in the concert made an equally positive impression. Indeed, the concert could not have got off to a more striking start than in the performance of Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman . How wonderful, I thought, to be back to the time when almost every concert began with a wake up call from a spanking overture. Here, in the body of the hall, its fine acoustic ensured that the strings and brass enveloped one in a veritable tempest of sound and by the end of it the only disappointment was that the opera was not to follow.( Writing of acoustics, I gather the next Philharmonia concert ( Wed. February 15th) is being broadcast live by the BBC, perhaps London re-discovering after many decades that there is just up the railway line another Midlands concert hall acoustically superior to either of the main London venues.)
As to the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in the autumn of life it is so easy to play what I call ‘the Legendary Conductor Hand’ which starts with ‘Ah, but you should have heard Klemperer, Karajan and Uncle Tom Cobley and all’, with which all intelligent conversation stops. However, for me, and perhaps for some others in the hall, the problem is that there is a very recent memory, just five years ago, of Esa-Pekka Salonen giving with this his orchestra a performance of this very same symphony which was the equivalent of seeing some vintage car restored to its pristine original state. It had an unforgettably brazen and fiery quality, often swift speeds and yet never seeming to lose the many beauties of the score. I heard it twice, once in Leicester and later in Bonn. In the latter venue, after the last chord the whole audience as a body immediately rose to their feet and cheered. I had never experienced anything like it and a member of the orchestra remarked afterwards that it had never happened in his experience of German concerts, where audiences tend to be somewhat reserved.
So, even before the baton was raised to introduce the supposed ‘fate’ motif ( about which the programme delightfully brought to our attention Czerny’s belief that it was stirred in the composer’s mind by the call of a small bird! ) , the conductor had a problem with at least one member of the audience. Yet, for all that, in its own terms this was a fine interpretation. Those terms tended to be within the German tradition, in other words with sonorous brass , a weighty and warm body of strings, mostly mellifluous woodwind. Of course, since the 1950’s this orchestra in particular has a long tradition of delivering that sort of sound and it gave a fine eloquence to the interpretation. Early on I could have done with more of a frisson but the andante was both memorably beautiful in places and dramatic at other times. I would have preferred the scherzo to be slightly faster at first but clearly the conductor had taken the long view because the contrast with the wonderful passage for double basses and cellos was truly startling. In the novel Howard’s End occurs the most famous description in fiction of this movement of the symphony. Forster at this point has the heroine thinking that it brought visions of goblins being banished by dancing elephants! All one can say is that these elephants were remarkably nimble on their feet. I wondered whether that might perhaps be an interesting indication of just how orchestral standards have risen since the early part of the last century.
Whatever, this part of the symphony, leading up as it does to that extraordinary transition to the blazing opening of the last movement, was very finely done indeed and the performance as a whole drove on to a splendid feeling of triumphant release at the end. Indeed, looking back over the whole performance, I realised that one of its strengths had been the management of the many transitions, no doubt the result of time spent in careful rehearsal. One looks forward to hearing Domingo Hindoyan again.