The Philharmonia’s concerts with Christoph von Dohnányi, the orchestra’s former principal conductor always have a palpable feeling of joyful reunion to them. After a period of ill health, it was good to see Dohnányi back on the podium leading his old band in a spirited concert of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The thought behind linking Haydn’s Symphony no. 12 in E major, Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor, appears to have been that all three works are innovative in some way, all marking new phases in the composers’ originality and musical development. It’s classic rather than challenging programming, but the pieces do work well together, and contrasting the state of the symphony at the time that Haydn was writing his  Twelth with the time of Beethoven’s Fifth is always a worthwhile exercise.

Christoph von Dohnányi © Berthold Fabricius
Christoph von Dohnányi
© Berthold Fabricius

Balance was at the heart of Dohnányi’s reading of the Haydn; balance and a graceful, courtly civility that was expressed through the superb equilibrium of the harpsichord played with mellow elegance by Janet Simpson and the rest of the orchestra. Bright in colour, but with judicious adjustment for the cooler Siciliano slow movement – Haydn switches to E minor here – it was a strong performance with commendable contributions from the oboes which added a further layer of gilding to the reading.

Arabella Steinbacher joined Dohnányi on stage as soloist for the Mozart, a piece nicknamed “The Turkish” on the grounds that the folksy Hungarian tunes in the Presto sounded Turkish to contemporary audiences. Again, it was a reading that prized intelligent musicality over demonstrative virtuosity. Steinbacher was in complete control of her instrument, delivering Joachim’s trusty cadenzas with flair and blending her playing with that of the orchestra’s so as to enhance rather than to overshadow. Steinbacher’s deft lightness gave the Adagio a deeper air of contemplation, a nice counter-flavour to the warm emotion she brought to the opening of the Allegro. The Presto saw Steinbacher almost reach for playfulness, a slight sense of quirk in her tone hinting at the joy behind the music before the delicately played finale.

Dohnányi’s reading of the Pastoral with the Philharmonia two years ago has not yet been forgotten; his approach to the Fifth was not quite so uniquely memorable, but had the same principles of expression and expansive playing behind it. What stood out above all was the woodwind, most notably the clear and perky playing of the piccolo, a subversively sour note against the rest of the ensemble in the final movement. The timpani was sensitive – perhaps a little too much so – and the strings, particularly in the pulsing first movement, were rich in tone, the horns in the Scherzo rounded and bold. Once or twice a little more force and impetus from the podium would have been appreciated; the second movement felt a little under-played at times, but there was thought behind the interpretation. The Philharmonia played responsively to Dohnányi, who though conducting from a stool lacked nothing in energy; it was a pleasure to see them reunited again.