Listening to classical music on CD can be a wonderful experience, but there are moments at a live concert which bring it home to you that there’s no substitute for the real thing. One of those moments came at Cadogan Hall last night the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra embarked on the second movement of Sibelius's Symphony no. 2 in D major. It’s the dynamic contrast that does it: we could hear the finest details of the almost inaudible timpani roll, followed by the attack of each pizzicato note as the opening is passed between double basses and cellos and then, seemingly out of nowhere, the glory as the music swells to a forceful brass chorale.

Alexander Sitkovetsky © Nordic Artists Management
Alexander Sitkovetsky
© Nordic Artists Management

The qualities and shortcomings of the Tonkünstler’s performance came steadily into focus through the course of the evening. On the credit side: this is an accurate orchestra, with hardly any slips in ensemble in the whole concert, even in the fastest and most dynamic passages. It’s an orchestra at its best when playing either loud or fast. The string playing is solid, the horns and brass are very tight so that you get a particularly impressive sound when they are playing as a unit. On the debit side: the woodwind sound tended towards the bland, not because it was broken up by errors but because phrases were played rather straight, with nothing in particular to enliven them.

Yutaka Sado cuts a rather benign, paternal presence on the podium. This is partly because he is exceptionally tall and gives the impression of leaning down to get closer to his musicians – it’s a long time since I’ve seen a conductor who is actually taller than most of the orchestra – and partly because of a trait of body language where he seems to gather his players up into open arms. Watching him, one has the sense of a master collaborator rather than a tyrant, which appears to pay dividends in the orchestra’s precise togetherness and response to dynamic detail.

I was less convinced about Sado’s ability to conjure rhythmic interest. At the beginning of the symphony, the orchestra produced a wonderfully rich display of Sibelius’s dark colours, but the contrasting melody – high woodwinds in six time – didn’t skip and dance merrily as it should. The big orchestral swells were imposing, but the quicksilver scurrying passages didn’t convince. After the superb opening of the second movement, there was some loss in coherence, but the Scherzo opened with verve, and by the end of the movement, you could tell that the orchestra had started to really enjoy themselves. In the finale, with its grandiose brass fanfares, the Rachmaninov-like sweep, the melodies, richness of texture and dynamic ebb and flow combined to create a thrilling finish.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Mendelssohn, with an appetiser of The Hebrides preceding Alexander Sitkovetsky’s performance of the Violin Concerto in E minor. I’m not sure that putting The Hebrides in the same programme as Sibelius 2 does it any favours: while Mendelssohn creates memorable melody as well as anyone, the seventy years of innovation in orchestration that separate the two works puts the Sibelius into a different league as regards the power with which the forces of nature are evoked.

In the Violin Concerto, the detail of the Tonkünstler’s playing helped our admiration of Mendelssohn’s melodic gifts, not just in the main themes but in the contrapuntal lines that fill in the spaces both in time and in pitch. Rather like the orchestra, Sitkovetsky was at his best in the faster passages, producing plenty of attack and retaining perfect control and articulation. The harmonics in the cadenza were exceptional, as was the acceleration towards the end of the movement and then the fast, light touch phrases in the finale. Where I felt something missing was in the slow second movement: I found no particular loveliness of timbre to entrance me, nor did it feel as if the music was being given enough space to breathe. Strangely, that feature was reserved for Sitkovetsky’s encore, the Sarabande from the Bach D minor Partita, where Sitkovetsky treated us to all the grace and spaciousness that I could have wished for.

***11