The Philharmonia Orchestra celebrated its 70th birthday with a gala comprising Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, conducted by the orchestra's Honorary Conductor for Life, Christoph von Dohnányi. The concert, also celebrating the unification of Germany, comprised some of Germany’s most exquisite artists for this evening concert including Berlin born pianist Martin Helmchen and German-Canadian tenor Michael König.

Christoph von Dohnányi © Bertold Fabricius
Christoph von Dohnányi
© Bertold Fabricius

The Philharmonia’s courtly opening to Schumann’s monumental Piano Concerto was paired with a fluid and flowing piano playing, capturing the essence of the Romantic era. Helmchen exuded charisma with precision in each note, lending a different character to every perfectly balanced phrase. He carried his performance with dignity and poise, completely in his element. The movements and gestures Helmchen put into his playing truly reflected the mood of Schumann’s work, creating endless joy and wonder, particularly in his approach to the powerful trills.

The call and response at the beginning of the Intermezzo between Helmchen and the orchestra was charming. Helmchen, reminiscent of a stallion in a dressage arena, pranced over the keys whilst the quietly assertive Dohnányi gave the pianist space to flourish. The ensemble brought out the changes in mood assuredly and swelled toward a sumptuous piano solo which contributed to the overarching spellbinding effect of the concert.

Following the interval, the Choral Symphony was conducted by Dohnányi, sans score. The opening was soft and ethereal before building with aggression, showing a completely different side to this elegant ensemble that it conveyed in the Schumann. The orchestra’s handling of sudden dynamic changes was faultless and firmly directed. Evidently a favourite for Dohnányi, he accepted nothing but the best from the orchestra, making a frustrated “Oh, come on!” gesture towards the first violins, as if they should have known better! The Scherzo skipped along joyfully with boundless energy coming from all participants. The clarinet sang out beautifully in the opening to the Adagio, and the way the pizzicato travelled across the string section was perfectly timed, creating a beautiful effect.

The “Ode to Joy” melody was introduced with passion by the cellos and basses with great rhythmic precision and articulation, setting the scene for the fourth movement. James Rutherford’s declamatory introduction was full of gusto and brought a smile to my face. American soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen led the ensemble, commanding the stage. Her voice resonated and conveyed such joy, matching Rutherford’s. Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose’s voice was lost in the melee of the vast ensemble, but could be heard at times in the quartet passages. Michael König performed with strength, however, he did not seem as secure as the rest of the ensemble. The Rodolfus Choir and Philharmonia Voices joined forces to create a massed choir. Apart from some mismatching of vocal blending in the bass section, the diction was incredibly clear and the ensemble displayed great sensitivity towards the intricate inflections within the vocal part.

The overall effect of this 70th birthday gala was transporting and I wish the Philharmonia Orchestra all the best for another 70 years.