Although both works have the goal of E major in common, the final destinations of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 couldn’t be more different. The radiant, effervescent culmination of the former is far from the transcendental purity gained as the latter fades to its close. Led by Tugan Sokhiev, the Philharmonia’s performances of the two pieces were also varied. After some fairly unremarkable Mendelssohn, the Mahler saw more life from both orchestra and conductor.

Tugan Sokhiev © Erik Weiss
Tugan Sokhiev
© Erik Weiss

The three movements of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto are played without a break, and Sokhiev’s interpretation of the piece emphasised this sense of forward motion. Constantly pushing onwards, Sokhiev gave a fairly straight reading which allowed for little rubato. Unfortunately, soloist Viktoria Mullova seemed to be yearning for more spaciousness, but although the end of the first movement saw a little more flexibility, Sokhiev was largely relentless. Mullova brought a vulnerability to her sound which worked especially well in the melancholic, spun-out lines of the first movement, and the first, achingly soft entry to the second. Her shaping of line was truly engaging (especially in the accompaniment-and-melody texture in the second movement) and the throwaway finale carefree and buoyant. Even though she met Mendelssohn’s technical demands with poise, she appeared restrained for much of the performance. Her dreamier asides were sometimes overpowered, and she didn’t quite dig deep enough for some of the impassioned moments. The Philharmonia were relatively unobtrusive in their accompaniment, with their light but warm sound suiting Mendelssohn’s clarity of texture. Even if the wind fell behind a few times, Mendelssohn’s fairy scherzo finale scampered, bringing the piece to a light-hearted end. Despite some special moments from Mullova, the performance was fairly commonplace and I was left underwhelmed.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 was conceived as a child’s daydream of heaven, yet the work is far from simple. The scordatura violin in the Totentanz second movement references the shadowy figure of Freund Hein from German folklore, while the description of heaven in the fourth movement encompasses some rather unsettling aspects (“St Luke is slaying the ox”, with “butcher Herod” also present). Sokhiev’s interpretation explored the discontinuities in Mahler’s vision, setting apart the different elements in this supposedly naïve realm. This tactic sometimes worked well, but I sometimes found a few of his tempo changes a touch too abrupt, and many details overly fussy. After some teething troubles with ensemble and balance in the opening bars, the Philharmonia settled in to give an affable and affectionate performance.

Despite a few dubious transitions, the second movement was generally more convincing. Leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s solos were appropriately gutsy, and the movement also showcased some strong woodwind playing. Clarinettist Olli Leppäniemi’s charismatic contributions lightened the mood, and Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais intensified the mournful atmosphere in the third movement’s bleak episodes. Principal horn Katy Woolley was outstanding throughout, with her solo at the start of the second movement enveloping the audience in an ethereal fantasy realm. While a few choice moments drew a stronger sound, the strings generally lacked body – until the third movement.

And what a movement! The meltingly gorgeous string sound and Sokhiev’s gently moving tempo combined to magical effect, resulting in a movement both tender and spacious. The expansive double variation form unfolded with purpose: the E major revelation was not a bolt from the blue, but a logical continuation of the rest of the movement. Sokhiev lent weight and emphasis to each harmonic change at the end, bringing an affecting interpretation of the movement to an appropriate close.

The fourth movement may not have sustained such a high level, yet the Philharmonia still gave a fine performance. Soprano Anastasia Kalagina’s sound sometimes felt a bit on the hard side for this idealised vision of heaven, but thankfully she softened as the piece approached its serene ending. Sokhiev’s tempo for the movement was steady, yet allowed for the Philharmonia’s unbridled outbursts and a growing sense of expansiveness as the piece calmed to its close.

While the performance of Mahler was much more absorbing than the Mendelssohn, the emotional intensity of the symphony’s third movement really did stand on a different level to the rest of the evening. However, Sokhiev’s lack of flexibility for most of the concert meant that the Philharmonia’s performance seemed to just fall short of what it could have been.

Philharmonia with Viktoria Mullova

Although both works have the goal of E major in common, the final destinations of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 couldn’t be more different. Tugan Sokhiev and the Philharmonia fell short of what could have been, but the third movement of the Mahler stood out.

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