In a year of so many last minute changes, the Philharmonia may not have originally intended to mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary online. Also, conductor Pablo Heras-Casado was unable to travel, so Pekka Kuusisto stepped up to the podium instead. Familiar to the orchestra as a violin soloist, this was his first time wielding the baton here. But a worthy celebration nonetheless, also in the Philharmonia’s 75th anniversary year.

Nicola Benedetti, Pekka Kuusisto and the Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell

With apologies to the back desk string players (and I hope there’s some kind of rotation system in place), I’m enjoying the slightly reduced string numbers in recent Covid-compliant performances I’ve seen. The pared down sound brings some welcome clarity, perhaps enhanced by the drier acoustic minus audience bodies. Whilst we’re on audience-free online performances, however, the close-up camera footage of Nicola Benedetti was initially a little Blair Witch Project, although this settled down after a while.

In an interview with John Suchet, together with Kuusisto, Benedetti described how her take on the Violin Concerto has “morphed” over the years, and that she now “sees the whole thing in multicolour”. She certainly paid close attention to detail, whilst never getting bogged down in the frequent rippling triplet accompaniments, always maintaining a refreshing lightness of touch, and a sense of the overall picture. Essentially a melodic concerto, she enjoyed the lyrical moments as well as the delicate filigree and trills, but this was never an overly rich performance. At the opening, her tone was open, feathery and almost breathy, certainly never weighty or cloying. 

Beethoven rewrote the work as a piano concerto at the suggestion of Muzio Clementi – a business decision, no doubt, as the violin concerto would receive less attention, particularly after its less than well-received premiere. It is Beethoven’s revolutionary first movement piano cadenza that survives, with integral interjections from the timpanist, based on the movement’s opening five drum taps. Mostly heard today is a transcription of the piano cadenza minus timps. Benedetti instead performed her own cadenza, written with friend and pianist, Petr Limonov. Their version takes elements of the piano cadenza, with the timpani, but blends their own take on elements of the movement’s thematic material. The inclusion of the timps is striking, as the cadenza launches almost like gunfire, with a distinctly martial feel. Despite the distance between Benedetti and the timpanist, they managed the timing challenges well here, and the overall effect was arresting.

Pekka Kuusisto conducts the Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell

Slowing up at the end of the bassoon scales in the first movement, bringing a wry smile to Benedetti’s face as she took over the phrases, was an interpretative detail that worked fine in performance, but might grate if heard every time. However, the oboe ‘cadenzas’ at the tutti pauses in the finale were great fun, and gave a light frisson to proceedings, all part of a bright and fresh overall performance.  

The Second Symphony continued with the lightness of touch shown in the concerto. Kuusisto’s tempi were steady on the whole, although the finale had more drive. Ensemble was tight, with precision in the playing, and strong attention to dynamics throughout. Highlights included triumphant brass suspensions at the end of the first movement, and a gracefully shaped second movement, with a light swagger to its lilting dance section. The Scherzo would have benefited from more energy and a greater sense of fun, however, and whilst the finale had great spirit, the quaver upbeats to the movement’s cheeky theme became less precise, so that by the end they were more like snatched grace notes. The concluding coda was nevertheless emphatically positive, bringing the evening to a celebratory end.


This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia's video stream