The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Honorary Conductor for Life, Christoph von Dohnányi, returned to the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday to conduct the final concert in the orchestra’s 2014/15 season. The Philharmonia has been on fine form this season, and continues to show itself well able to hold its own in the crowded London orchestral scene. This promised to be a fitting end to another successful season.

Christoph von Dohnányi © Andreas Garrels | NDR
Christoph von Dohnányi
© Andreas Garrels | NDR

The concert began with an insightful performance of Bartók’s Divertimento, the last work he composed before fleeing Hungary in 1940. The work is for string orchestra, but also makes use of a solo quartet. Although this is, on the face of it, reminiscent of the Baroque concerto grosso, Bartók mixes the textures of solo and different combinations of string forces in a much more varied way. Dohnányi’s approach to this transparent and accessible work is one of clarity – he doesn’t over-indulge in the folksier moments, or in the dark, menacing chromaticisms of the second movement, for example. The light opening movement had real bite and acerbic wit. Towards the latter half of this movement, the mood changes with chromatic over-layered scales which rise then fall through the parts, an idea which returns in the second movement with trills, and Dohnányi brings out these striking textures with carefully managed dynamic control. He also managed well the tricky balance between the solo quartet and full strings, but also within tutti passages, maximising the interest in Bartók’s writing for meagre forces. On the whole, ensemble was tight, although occasionally a delay crept in between front and back desks of the violins, which stood out in the dry acoustic of the RFH. Dohnányi maintained a fine balance in the final movement between exuberance and control, although again, the ensemble in the pick-up to the pizzicato section towards the end was not as tight as it might have been. 

The performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante that followed was a curious experience. The soloists were flawless throughout, and in the cadenzas, particularly in the first movement, performed as one, with perfectly timed and judged runs. Their exchanges were poised, and their tone well matched. Dohnányi remained respectfully in the background, and the orchestra provided appropriately sophisticated support, with particularly tasteful playing from the horns and oboes. Yet overall, I remained surprisingly untouched by this performance. I am not sure if Steinbacher and Power have performed together before, but perhaps the key to my uncertainty was the difference in their stage presence. Power was full of energy, itching to join in with the orchestra (which he frequently did) and seemed alive to what was happening elsewhere on stage. Steinbacher’s performance on the other hand was one of self-contained simplicity. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong. However here the mismatch was disconcerting, and even led to occasional pointed differences in articulation of echoed phrases, leading one to wonder how much time the two had to discuss their approaches to the piece. The slow movement was the most successful, with touching playing from both, and a beautifully tender cadenza. The finale was taken at a fair lick, and was spot on for accuracy, but once again, Power was itching to communicate with Dohnányi and the orchestral players, leaving Steinbacher appearing stranded at times. I expect radio listeners will have enjoyed this spirited and flawless performance, but as a concert performance it was less than ideal.

With the full orchestra on stage for the second half, the immediate contrast of the weighty sound of massed strings in the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major was impressive. Yet this was more than just a barnstorming Beethoven Seven. Throughout, Dohnányi’s attention to detail, articulation and phrasing was apparent. He skilfully moulded and shaped crescendi and diminuendi, frequently lowering his flattened palms and even occasionally a finger to his lips to ‘shush’ the orchestra, who responded obediently. In the second movement, the repeated funeral march rhythmic pattern was given prominence throughout, and the counter melodies were allowed to effortlessly float over the top of the insistent, almost stubborn pulsing beneath. Once again, Dohnányi elicited excellent pianissimo playing from the strings in the fugue section.  In contrast, the scherzo had real fizz and energy, once again the dynamic contrasts lifting this above a workaday performance. Once or twice, the problem of ensemble from front to back of the strings that was there in the Bartók returned, and here I wondered whether there was occasionally some overenthusiastic leading from the front desk. However, the finale was full of Beethovenian joy and life force, and Dohnányi encouraged the brass to shine, bringing this commanding performance to a rousing finish.