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Too cautious

Royal Festival Hall
05/05/2005 -  (05/24/2005 in Paris)
Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela, Richard Strauss:4 Last Songs, Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony n 3 Eroica
Soile Isokoski (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)

A good Eroica is one which still creates the same shock for modern audiences as it may have been the case in Beethoven’s time when never before had such an ambitious work of this scope and depth had been written.

It was a surprise then to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra, very probably London’s best ensemble under Christoph von Dohnányi, their distinguished musical director to deliver genuine instrumental mastery but failing to do respect to the work’s emotional stature: Woodwind solos were superb, the treacherous horn passages of the Scherzo done very securely and Dohnányi’s tempis, orchestral control and sense of line was not to be faulted. Why then were all the first mouvement Sforzandis rounded and smoothened, why was the Funeral march too careful ? Apart from a lively Scherzo, Dohnányi had in mind a sage Haydn-esque conception of the work which was surprisingly limitating.

In the first half, the German conductor was much more convincing. The miniature Sibelius piece was a gem, with genuine Finnish strings color and wonderful solo from the cor anglais. Orchestral playing in the Vier letzte Lieder was also of the highest order as we have learned to expect from this conductor and this orchestra when they perform Richard Strauss: Masterly transparent chamber playing. Soile Isokoski, Paris’s recent Desdemona, had just came for this concert from New York where she is doing a series of Faust at the Met. Maybe this travel schedule is a little too taxing as this great singer took some time to warm up – she was short of breath in unusual places here and there and her singing line was unsecure in moments. However, she warmed up as no Soprano can ever fail to in Strauss’s works and was her usual self in the last two songs, the last one benefiting from very subtle tempi from Dohnányi.

Dohnányi and his players must have now arrived at Paris’s Chatelêt where they will do a revival of Strauss’s Arabella with Karita Mattila (there must be something with Finland and Sopranos.). London musicians often complain that rehearsals conditions are not always ideal: Unlike the LSO, the Philharmonia does not have a hall to itself and has to share the Royal Festival Hall with many others. This should not be the case in Paris and by the time this program is repeated on the 24th, there are no reasons to believe that musical conceptions will not have already evolved.

Antoine Leboyer



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