How gratifying that James Conlon briefly introduced the rationale for this Philadelphia Orchestra concert, which turned out to be entirely divorced from the nostalgic ‘Memories of Prague’ that its title suggested. Instead, what I had presumed to be coincidental key signatures were in fact the link: an exploration of D minor (with a side of D major). The composers of the ‘long nineteenth century’ were indeed obsessed with this key, using it to express chaos and hopelessness (the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth), tragedy (Die Walküre), and even the downright demonic (Don Giovanni).

James Conlon © Chester Higgins
James Conlon
© Chester Higgins

Regardless, Conlon’s opening gambit proved ingenious. Thinking of Mozart and D minor often brings Don Giovanni to mind. Here, this judgment-laden overture led directly into the overtures to Idomeneo and then Le Nozze di Figaro. The progressive move from minor to major worked, the harmonic shifts in these miniature symphonic movements being varied enough that nothing sounded overly monotonous. Even considering the three overtures as a mini-symphony in themselves, with the Idomeneo the moodier slow movement, this wasn’t a bad agglomeration by any means. Don Giovanni showed Conlon’s operatic stripes instantly, its fiercely dramatic opening chords full of the requisite foreboding. Idomeneo, oddly, had a much greater frisson, and Figaro too had its thrills. However, as with the later Prague symphony, all three overtures needed more precise string articulation even at Conlon’s quick tempi, and that grace which the greatest Mozarteans conjure from their orchestras remained elusive.

The Prague symphony produced similar results with the same caveats. A gruff introduction to the long first movement (with repeat observed) plunged us straight back into the Don’s fires. Some conductors, with this first movement, might find a kind of proto-Schubertian (even Brucknerian) momentum, but Conlon was more interested in internal detailing than an overall sense of line. And, duly, there was some very nice work in that regard: the violas and cellos in particular were brought out to good effect, and in general the winds were pert if not that distinctive. Still, all three movements were vigorous, and perhaps the most difficult aspect of Mozart – tempo – was confidently dealt with. Though there are undoubtedly many possible tempi for this music, it is crucial to find one that sounds right: that is almost impossible to define, but it is all too obvious when things sound wrong. With this Prague the sense of levity and bouncing smiles wasn’t quite there, partly because of a somewhat thin tone in the first violins, but it was certainly enthusiastic.

Yet more D minor, after that, in Dvořák’s Seventh, his most successful symphony. That lush, brassy Philadelphia sound seems to have survived the orchestra’s decades of turmoil, and this dark, brooding work showed it off to bold effect. This performance was saturated by the influence of Brahms, his First and Third symphonies in particular. Conlon’s fondness for pointing out inner parts was still there, but now more focused on thematic development. If this performance was not idiomatically phrased in the way that Sir Colin Davis, Jiří Bělohlávek or Iván Fischer might make it, it nonetheless had a very strong sense of symphonic rigour. So, too, was there a much greater focus on the long line that the Mozart didn't quite achieve, an architecture enhanced by Conlon’s languid flexibility. It was easy to see how this conductor’s experience with Wagner at the LA Opera and elsewhere pays dividends, a sense of constant transition pervading the return of the Scherzo from the Trio and the murky triumphs of the Finale. And what triumphs, this barnstorming reading benefiting from much more confident orchestral playing. Played as if one movement, its emotional journey hit home, if not in quite the way the concert’s opening chords suggested.