Today’s Philharmonia Orchestra program was a generous serving of two standard, decibel-rich romantic staples surrounding a delectable middle work that is less frequently performed than its more “popular” counterparts. As well as sheer volume and orchestral colour, the Strauss tone poem and Brahms symphony also had the similarity that after all was said, developed and done the music disappeared into the mist of personal contemplation rather than seismic, ovation-inducing quakes—clues from both composers as to the importance they’d attached and “risked” in these singular quintet of “adieus” (all four movements of Opus. 90 end softly; the Strauss leaves the planet still uncertain as to its final tonality).
Yet, it was Mozart’s sunny, beautifully nuanced concerto that provided the greatest musical satisfaction, due in no small part to Till Fellner’s growing confidence, skill and flexibility in the moment. In the orchestral exposition of KV 456, conductor Sir Charles Mackerras set a spritely pace but failed to let the phrases breathe—a deficiency that Fellner put to rights from his first entry. And so with high-level hope for the all-too rare delivery of orchestra/soloist unanimity dashed, the bar slipped a notch, but there was still much to admire.
Fellner’s clear, clean and articulate phrasing was further enhanced by an inner-voice legato that might well have been asked for from the second violins and violas in the sublime opening of the “Andante” (just a tad more left hand was required). The first-rate contributions from the woodwinds added much to the aural spectrum; if only all concerned (and the strings at their turn) could agree on how much lift to give the theme, resulting in a true dialogue with the piano rather than mere commentary. The cadenzas were rendered with poise and crafted with care, needing just an ounce of relaxation to move them from great to memorable.
In the final frame, Fellner hit his stride. Starting “seul” he was able to establish the tempo and dove right into the fun and joy, inspiring his colleagues to follow. His saucy grace notes drew smiles all around and set the tone for the finest music-making of the afternoon.
The Mackerras approach to Richard Strauss—a genius of orchestration—favoured bombast at the expense of inner tension. The famous opening certainly rattled the rafters, but threatened to become a tympani concerto (double sticking not really necessary in the fine acoustics of Royal Festival Hall). Unforgettable was the reaction by a five-year-old child, so close to the cymbalist that when his mighty crash exploded the first climax the young boy’s hair flew in the wind even as his delighted face registered an expression of sheer delight that reminded us all of the allure of classical music.
At full cry, the string tone was a constant pleasure. Concertmaster Zsolt-Thiamér Visontay took on double duty as sensitive soloist in the waltz segment and assistant conductor: weaving and bobbing to keep his charges together where Mackerras’ stabbing fingers could not (alas, his powers did not extend far enough back to keep the mighty chimes in sync.)
Much talent in the band: Gordon Hunt’s oboe and Helen Powell’s English horn were at one, bringing out the theme in its many moods and hues; bassoonist Robin O’Neill soared through his melodic lines even as Gordon Laing added much to the lower range with his gritty contra bassoon contributions; principal cellist David Cohen excelled in his solos, urged his section to dig deep into their strings and complemented Visontay’s approach as required. Overall, an ensemble ready for greatness.
Disappointing until the Finale was Brahms’ F major Symphony. For whatever reason, Mackerras chose to interpret the opening “Allegro con brio” as Invitation to the Dance. The pace was so quick that visions of Johann Strauss Jr. filled the air and the magnificent development teetered on chaos rather than spectacular revelation. Despite principal clarinet Barnaby Robson’s stellar contributions, the “Andante” zipped by “just so,” reducing the chances for the marvellously constructed rhythmic tension between duples and triples to slim-to-none. Then, like much of the Mozart, the “Poco allegretto” was awash with magnificent orchestral tone, but couldn’t buy a breath to save and, ultimately, savour its brief life.
When called for, the musicans erupted with an exciting frenzy in the final “Allegro.” At last the tempo was grand, yet the reading entirely missed the vital dramatic cornerstone of the purposeful dichotomy of evenly spaced triplets and perfectly placed eighths. Frustratingly, yielding an unwanted unity, the final chord had some latecomers as did the first—thirty-five minutes earlier. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the baton after all. JWR