If there’s one thing that distinguishes the Philharmonia Orchestra as an individual voice in a crowded marketplace, it is surely the orchestra’s string sound. Possessed though the strings are of a truly inimitable depth and warmth, intensity and incisive attack are never sacrificed. Unashamedly awash with vibrato, none of the other sections of the orchestra ever manage (or are permitted) to cover up this irrepressible hub of Romantic energy, only contributing to tuttis of a quite unique clarity, focus, and grandeur. No repertoire better shows off the Philharmonia’s sound than early to late Romanticism; I therefore had very high hopes for Thursday’s concert of Weber, Beethoven and Brahms. Yuri Temirkanov was joined by Nikolai Lugansky – one of Russia’s greatest pianistic exports of today – for Beethoven’s sunny Fourth Piano Concerto, sandwiched by the woodland rustlings of Weber’s Freischütz Overture and Brahms’ warmly rubicund, autumnal Second Symphony. Although not entirely fulfilled, this was still an orchestra capable of quite overwhelming emotional impact, married to a finesse of touch rare and gratifying to hear.

Yuri Temirkanov
Yuri Temirkanov

It still baffles me to hear ensemble slips quite as grievous as those at the beginning of the Freischütz Overture from a professional orchestra, though. Rather than a smooth, imposing octave, the first note happened 4-5 times, and the first move from that note around 3. Fortunately, the violins’ rich, dark tone cut through and gave these mysterious octaves real depth, and their muted accompaniment to a sigh-inducing horn quartet became the operatic forest from which hunting calls could magically emerge. The cellos’ turbulently Wagnerian line was rendered exquisitely, but I felt the Allegro didn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening, with somewhat limp rhythms that even the Philharmonia’s marvellous blend could not save. A hat tip to principal clarinet Mark Van Der Wiel, though, who emerged from those glowing fortissimo chords for some heart-melting solo lines.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto followed a broadly similar trajectory. Lugansky gave a dishearteningly utilitarian account of the opening; instead of a hushed chorale, it was simply stated and left to hang in the air. Lyrical though this opening was, the beauty of the strings’ entry felt like a breath of fresh air rather than an inspired refraction of the opening melody. After this, that irresistible orchestral warmth came to the fore in the long introduction, Temirkanov drawing a sound both weighty and implausibly fleet of foot from the ensemble; full-bodied but full of potential, every minute change in orchestration was beautifully judged. By comparison, Lugansky’s contribution often felt workmanlike and monochrome, apparently ignoring the myriad opportunities Beethoven provides for tonal variety in the piano part.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the cadenzas. Beethoven’s own cadenzas are emotional grinders, themes combining and dissolving in driving emotional storms. Here, though, they felt staid, played more or less strictly in tempo, and spoiling the magic of the persistently unconventional transitions back to the concerto discourse. Still, the slow movement’s cris de coeur were suitably dolorous from the piano, and the finale’s last, grinning pianissimo was very characterful from Lugansky. Despite this, the real star was the orchestra; with equal parts vehemence, grace, and wit, Temirkanov lead the Philharmonia on a virtuosic romp through one of Beethoven’s most attractively orchestrated scores.

Brahms said of his Second Symphony: “I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning”. With its various eerie timpani rolls, trombone chorales and interruptions suffused in Romantic nostalgia, it’s not difficult to see why. However, there was little hint of this in Temirkanov’s reading; instead we had a showcase in orchestral splendour, with impeccable blend and a heart-on-the-sleeve emotional intensity that never even dipped its toe into sentimental slush.

There were issues, however. The first horn was having a particularly troubled evening, letting down some of the first movement’s most glorious moments with flat intonation and technical slips. The cello section’s moment in the limelight for the second theme was spoiled by vibrato being applied indiscriminately to every note of the sighing phrases rather than with the shape of the phrase; the result was for every note to have an unseemly swell before the next note, breaking the long phrase. Even in the gorgeous melody that brings in the slow movement, the phrase felt as if it could have been longer with a little less indulgence.

These were exceptions to a generally strong performance, though, with admirable textural clarity, that trademark Philharmonia string sound, and a performance from principal flute Samuel Coles, whose ability to ride over all textures with not a hint of effort, a beautiful, musical vibrato and musical sensitivity was worthy of a review in itself. Temirkanov’s restrained conducting style – strictly no baton! – brought results despite itself, the barnstorming finale closing the door on an evening of mixed but largely positive results.