S&H Concert Review

Voices - Hans Werner Henze at 75: Henze - Symphony No 5, Beethoven - Piano Concerto No 3, Henze - Fraternité, Beethoven - Symphony No 5. Yefim Bronfman (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi 29 March 2001, RFH (MB)

Hans Werner Henze is a composer nearer to the traditional 'centre' of classical music than many like to think. His Fifth symphony, for example, seems nearer in form to the Bartokian Concerto for Orchestra than the standard four-movement symphony which he does little to reinvent. Its style remains unmistakably classical and proportioned. With its brash brass sonorities and carefree use of percussion (double piano, for example) it can seem a transparently over-indulgent work but it is undeniably concise, albeit unmemorably so.

This was a rather stark performance of it. The Italianate glow which partly inspired the Fifth symphony - a 'reflection of the people and countryside of Rome' - was largely displaced by something altogether more arresting. Dohnányi secured volatile woodwind lines - a notable alto flute and cor anglais being menacing in their phrasing - and there was more than a hint of impatience in his handling of the splenetic opening to the work. Besides this, however, there was room for arioso string tone - more lyrical than dramatic but ear-fetching nonetheless. The Philharmonia brass flashed through the finale like firecrackers.

Fraternité, of which this was the UK premiere, in the presence of the composer, was more memorable. Written for a large orchestra it is a work of considerable beauty and tension, almost Mahlerian in its scope. With strings divided antiphonally the complex sonorities emerged like shards of broken porcelain - the string-and-harp textures were beautifully counterpointed, the tuttis never over stated but climactic nevertheless. The performance was a fine one of a work which pays repeated listening.

Juxtaposing Henze's two works against two C minor works by Beethoven seems on paper odd yet this concert melded perfectly - the sunny Henze contrasted with the sombre dramatic Beethoven. Yefim Bronfman was a superb soloist in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto - achieving a spellbinding lyricism, notably in the radiant second movement, and compelling dialogue with the orchestra throughout the work's development. His finger work was often delicate, but he was also capable of producing a dynamic range in keeping with the drama of the outer movements. His immediate entry after the orchestral exposition, for example, had all the authority one expected. If there was less rubato in this performance than in some I have heard (noticeably Evgeny Kissin in a stylish but languorous Philharmonia concert last year) it seemed in keeping with Beethoven's intentions. This was a Beethoven Third which began in tragedy and ended in absolution.

Dohnányi's performance of the titanic Fifth Symphony was impressive. As always with this orchestra the sound was astonishingly rich with strings noticeably heavy in their phrasing. Yet, this performance was also revelatory in the most surprising ways. Dohnányi is less interventionist than many conductors in this work the result being that his tempi are often more fluid than most (and more authentic in many ways than performances I have heard from conductors such as Norrington and Gardiner). The opening chords, for example, were a paradigm of clarity, near Beethoven's metronome marking and with the fermatas differentiated. There were many instances of Dohnányi achieving a special mood in this performance as he gave a warm sul tasto sound to many of the string passages. Where Beethoven had marked pp this was what the Philharmonia played - the result being that this performance was marked as much by its drama as it was by its motionlessness and innate stillness. The scherzo was exactly that - taken near Beethoven's marking of 96 to the dotted half note - and the finale produced some dynamically breathtaking playing from the Philharmonia woodwind and brass principals - f bassoons matching mf horns, mp bassoons matching mf horns and so on. If this appeared a well-prepared performance it actually sounded extraordinarily fresh. The Philharmonia's playing was faultless.

This was concert was as striking for its content as it was for its artistry. A hugely impressive evening.

Marc Bridle

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