Drawing a strong season to a close, the Philharmonia's final programme of the year was given under the baton of the venerable Christoph von Dohnányi, its Honorary Conductor for Life, who brought his eighty-six years of experience to bear on three great works of the repertoire.

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

Dohnányi opened the concert with one of Arvo Pärt’s most famous works, Fratres, in its 1992 arrangement for violin, string orchestra and percussion. In classic Pärt mould, it is imbued with meditative and contemplative qualities, given by its constant repetitions – a constant ebb and flow. Putting aside briefly the quality of the work and the performance, the choice of Fratres as a prelude to the concert was inspired. On a wet, miserable June evening, in a city whose transport network was rent asunder by floods, in a country on edge at a time of a momentous political moment, the ten minute meditation that Fratres provided was an unburdening of the mind and a focus on the music. The almost religious element of the piece gave what followed a greater sense of importance and as a palate-cleanser, it was extremely effective. That is not to say, though, that the superb bowing of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, soloist for this work and the Philharmonia’s concertmaster, was simply preparation for the succeeding Beethoven. Visontay gave a balanced performance, particularly controlled on the top ethereal strains that threatened to run amok, but were thrillingly held in check.

Having had our minds vacated, Visontay returned to his chair and was replaced as soloist by pianist Martin Helmchen for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major. Helmchen’s performance was highly individual, creating most noticeably in the Allegro a soft fluidity which is unusual in a piece that is often played with a little too much force, dissolving the notes into each other, yet without blurring the sound and retaining plenty of texture. My only complaint here was slightly unnecessary pedal work, where the dampening pedal was used a little too over actively. The rich, bold sound from the Philharmonia threatened on occasion to overwhelm Helmchen, but the contrast in sound levels and the softness of his playing combined to create a pleasing subtlety. Fine fingerwork, again particularly in the moments of the first movements which call for virtuosity, lent moments of thrill.

Dohnányi closed the concert with Beethoven’s great “Pastoral” Symphony, a paean to the countryside which inspired so much of his work. Dohnányi’s interpretation of the first movement, those “awakening of cheerful feelings” was less cheerful and more gleeful, with playing from all of absolute joy. Clear particularly here, but also in the second movement was the strength of the woodwind section, where we had brilliant, vivacious playing from the flautist Samuel Coles, in a beautiful, conversation with clarinettist Mark van de Wiel, capturing the call of birds exceptionally well. With a light fluttering of fingers, Dohnányi drew a strong tidal-like feeling, evocative of Beethoven’s bubbling brook – light and blue, so unlike the Thames next to us – and dreamy playing from the strings lured us to the banks. The third movement opened with rapt playing from the horns, and then the throbbing sensation Dohnányi drew from the orchestra as the thunder of the fourth movement rolled in was a wonder to listen to. As the Hirtengesang fifth movement opened, the aftermath of the storm was played in golden, glorious tones with particular richness from the cellos underwriting the joyous relief. Dohnányi’s conducting was effortless and gentle: passing baton from hand to hand to shape textures.

The ease of Dohnányi’s relationship with the Philharmonia was clear from their response to his conducting. The symphony, in particular, was one of the most moving accounts I have heard – lush, spacious and open. It is rare for me to leave a concert with a tear in my eye, but Dohnányi achieved just that.