Philharmonia Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

My way or the South Bank highway
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The Independent Culture

As an audience, we too must adjust. That this performance took place in a venue associated with the softer sounds and fleet tempi of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did not help. On paper, this programme must have seemed like a good way of easing in to a more intimate space. The Philharmonia have an impressive track record in early 19th-century repertoire, most especially with Sir Charles Mackerras. But the combination of a small stage and a conductor whose big idea for the Fifth Symphony was a lurid crescendo through the final note of each statement of the first theme of the first movement made for an uneasy start to the season. Perhaps frustrated by the idiosyncrasies of the acoustics, Christoph von Dohnanyi took to the stage as though the QEH was the last place on earth that he wanted to be. Very quickly, I began to feel the same. Dohnanyi is an elegant and persuasive interpreter of late 19th-century and early 20th-century repertoire, but his Beethoven and Berlioz were coarse and dour: a startling reminder of how these composers used to be played, and similar in their Easter Island demeanour to the recordings that nearly put me off both composers as a child.

Wrung through with violent vibrato, and strait-jacketed by stiff-collared articulation, the music was drained of wit and sensuality. Odd moments of beauty and freshness emerged here and there - the fretful hairpins of Le corsaire, the delicate counterpoint of the cellos and violas in the second movement of the Concerto, the noble horns and melancholy clarinet and oboe in the Symphony - only to be squashed by Dohnanyi's didactic beat and humourless phrasing. It wasn't boring, but Berlioz's peachy colours for flutes and violins turned a peculiar shade of orange, while Beethoven's heroic indigos were rendered a gouty puce. Till Fellner's reading of the Piano Concerto was curiously uncommunicative, almost glassy. Admirable as his dynamic control is, he appears to view the orchestral score as incidental to the piano score and there was little sense of dialogue or inspiration. Say what you will about the QEH, bad attitudes are more destructive than bad acoustics.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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