Well, we’re nearly there. It’s true we might have to wait a bit longer to hear the welcome clambering of people piling into British concert halls or the exciting clamour of expectant box office queues, but the Philharmonia Orchestra took a major step forward this week. Helping to lead the nation’s charge towards orchestral normality, and breaking the four-month trend in live streams of mainly smaller-scale performances and chamber recitals, there was a fresh tingle of excitement about the first of the Philharmonia Sessions, a series of new performances streamed nearly-live from London (recorded just shortly before being broadcast) with, at last, some proper orchestral fare. The programme alone would have been enticing enough, but when coupled with the instinctive musicality of John Wilson and the engaging Sheku Kanneh-Mason, everything was just peachy.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Philharmonia Orchestra

The orchestra positioned itself in a socially-distanced format, which, thanks to some masterful editing and production, felt more together than spread apart, and as if to formally announce its new arrival after over 100 days of not performing, plunged straight into Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1. Kanneh-Mason opened with intent, coursing through the piece with poise and sensitivity, though sometimes with a little too much introspection. But he exuded unstoppable lyricism throughout, showing resonance and an even tone across all registers, and the contrast in the Finale between his controlled harmonics and the sudden, intense grinding was impressive. 

The orchestra in support played more than a bit part, the woodwinds’ singing quality full of character and the muted strings in the Minuet delightful and stately. Wilson guided things along with subtlety and care, bringing out the Philharmonia’s clarity of sound and some fine interplay between cello and orchestra. He proved to be a good judge of pace, with urgency in the outer sections mixed with tinges of melancholy, and a wonderful wave-like sensation in the Allegretto con moto, gently flowing in and out. Kanneh-Mason’s sense of drama and understated virtuosity also played its part, but only to shine light on the music, not the performer. This was a very welcome and captivating performance of a much-loved concerto, a great way to start the Philharmonia’s return.

© Philharmonia Orchestra

In a marked change in mood, Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, took advantage of the social-distancing mandate, with the smaller of the two string orchestras positioned towards the back of the hall (in this performance, the Battersea Arts Centre), separated clearly from the larger string orchestra and the string quartet towards the front. This helped to accentuate the echo effect in the second orchestra that the composer was looking for. Wilson’s passion for English music and the Philharmonia’s credentials in this particular piece were key to this performance, which was dedicated to all those who have suffered in the current pandemic and to all the key workers. 

From the hushed stillness of the opening and the first statement of Tallis’ Phrygian-mode melody through to the glorious final chord dying away at the close, it was clear that these players really meant it. The Philharmonia strings were warm and soulful, and Wilson’s keen sense of phrasing and pace showed, cultivating delicate exchanges between the larger string orchestra and the muted responses of the second orchestra. The string quartet’s contemplative solos and ensemble work soared, and the grandeur of the ground swells of momentum in the combined forces was glorious. This was a reflective and emotional performance, ending appropriately with a note of optimism. Welcome back!

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.