Rapture and calmness combined
The musicians of the London orchestras are amazing players. On Thursday at 6pm a group of 10 from the Philharmonia played with superb assurance three blisteringly hard pieces, newly written for them by participants in the Philharmonia’s own Composers Academy. Ninety minutes later they joined their colleagues in the full orchestra to play a reassuringly mainstream programme, dominated by Beethoven.
It was an astonishing feat of musical flexibility, exemplified by principal clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. At around 6.15pm his expressionist cries were pinning our ears back, in Michael Taplin’s Lambent Fires. Three hours later, he was shaping a graceful melody in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
Witnessing this transformation was one of the pleasures of the evening. But there was much else to enjoy too, not least the new pieces. Each struck home in different ways: Taplin’s piece by its juxtaposition of stillness and movement, Desmond Clarke’s Xyla by its overlapping cascades, like musical waterfalls, and Patrick Jones’s Locks of
the Approaching Storm by a cunningly contrived tension between two neighbouring notes, only resolved at the very end.
The main concert offered soothing balm, firstly in the shape of Fratres by the Estonian Arvo Pärt. As the orchestra paced out its patiently descending circular tread, violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay pushed against it with ecstatic soaring melodic lines. Rapture and sublime calmness were beautifully combined.
The calmness persisted with the opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The wonderful young German pianist Martin Helmchen slightly fluffed it, just because he was so concerned to shape it exactly right. His performance was in many ways exemplary, particularly in the slow movement. If he could just have relaxed a little and not over-finessed every phrase, it would have been wholly wonderful. In the performance of Beethoven’s
Pastoral Symphony that followed, conductor Christophe von Dohnányi demonstrated the art of relaxed mastery. His first gesture revealed it, by launching the piece in an urgent way. It gave energy to all the lovely spaciousness that followed; a small thing, but a telling one.