Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” linked together over three centuries of music in last night’s Philharmonia concert. The chorale had its origins in a hymn tune by J.R. Ahle (published in 1662), which Bach harmonised and inserted into his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (1724). It is peppered with harmonic surprises: even at the start, the ascent up the F major scale is disrupted by a sharpened fourth. After all, the text is a plea for mercy, beginning “It is enough. Lord, when it pleases me, relieve me of my yoke”. Written to complement Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale (2002) achieves the same sense of reverence by very different means. Schubert’s “Great” Symphony no. 9 in C major (completed in 1828) opens with the first notes of the chorale, using it to launch a journey of ‘heavenly length’.

David Afkham © Felix Broede
David Afkham
© Felix Broede

Magnus Lindberg shrouds the chorale in eerie harmonies, evoking a sense of mystery and wonder. Fragments emerge, creating the sense that a veil has been pulled back, before they are distorted and once again slip back into the texture. David Afkham’s tempo initially felt slightly hurried, leaving little time to revel in Lindberg’s luminous orchestration, although he later slowed into a more spacious pulse. In this piece (and indeed, the rest of the concert), the brass took the spotlight with a bright but rounded sound; here, the balance and blend of the trombones was particularly admirable. The Philharmonia captured the kaleidoscopic twisting and turning of the piece, preserving its enigmatic nature: the concluding major chord seemed anything but a resolution.

Whereas Lindberg treats the chorale with a sense of awe, Berg lends it a more reassuring tone in his Violin Concerto. Berg dedicated the piece ‘To the Memory of an Angel’: it is a memorial to Manon Gropius (Alma Mahler’s daughter from her second marriage), who died at just 19 after contracting polio. The chorale comes after an orchestral outburst of anguish, introducing the concluding Adagio section of the work; in this performance, the Philharmonia lent it an earnestness which was both comforting and chilling.

Violinist Carolin Widmann stepped in for the indisposed Sergey Khachatryan at the last minute. She injected energy into an otherwise lacklustre first movement: the Philharmonia lacked bite, and articulation felt rather damp. Although Widmann’s performance was certainly commanding, her raw and intense sound sometimes bordered on strident, and the vulnerable dimension of the work was lost. Although the orchestra mustered a bit more force in the second movement, entering into the ominous atmosphere, the performance still lacked the requisite tension. Despite Widmann’s sense of desperation as she struggled against Berg’s mighty chords and her impassioned intensity in the coda, the concerto was bereft of the emotional weight which it demands.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was a game-changer for the Philharmonia. From the outset, the orchestra were crisp and animated, exuding a sense of optimism. Afkham emphasised the sunnier side to Schubert’s disposition: although this meant that the darkness cast by the fleeting minor-mode shadows was often sidelined, this concern seemed of little importance given the sheer joie de vivre of the Philharmonia’s performance. Afkham’s brisk tempi galvanised the ensemble (even if energy levels may have flagged a few times in the later movements) and provided a sense of propulsion which navigated the path through the expansive form with ease.

Afkham’s interpretation combined vigour with poetry, gently unfolding the melodies of the first movement with lovingly caressed phrases (oboe and flute contributions were particularly refined). He deftly handled the surging transition into the exposition of the first movement, and his decision to treat the trombone theme as a point of structural relaxation was a nice touch. The lithe string sound invigorated the ensemble, and they embraced the impassioned outbursts of emotion in the second movement, with stormy dialogue followed by earnest lyricism. The bold Scherzo ceded to a rocking Trio with gorgeous arching phrases, before the finale brought the work to a noble and life-affirming conclusion. Although the Philharmonia’s performance of the symphony may not have been technically perfect, the Philharmonia’s spirited performance was infectious. Afkham engaged with the ensemble in a way that he hadn’t in the first half, tracing a purposeful arch through Schubert’s expansive form.

***11