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Philharmonia 02 June 2024 (Susan Elkin reviews)


Isabelle Faust/Philippe Herreweghe

Royal Festival Hall

02 June 2024

Of course I’m warmly committed to promoting the excellent compositions of hitherto marginalised groups. But just occasionally it’s a real treat to hear a concert which concentrates unashamedly on masterpieces by “dead white men”. Beethoven and Brahms have been supremely popular for over two centuries and a century and a half, respectively, for very good reasons.

German violinist Isabelle Faust and Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe have worked together a lot (although not with this orchestra) and the chemistry both sounds and shows. He clearly doesn’t believe in flamboyant gestures and his “micro” style put me in mind of Otto Klemperer and yes, I’m afraid I am old enough to have seen the latter live.

Faust is a very poised performer and a terrific technician. She made the very soft passages sing out with unusual resonance, played the larghetto with lyricism, smiles and impressive control and gave us a very dramatic, quirky segue into the rondo which danced away with gossamer lightness. The duet with the bassoon was a high spot.

So was the timpani work (Antoine Bedwi) using historic pedal-free instruments which means old fashioned ear-to-drum to check tuning. The whole concerto turns on the opening timp statement which was excitingly done here. I used to be in love with the Kreisler cadenzas but lately I’ve become bewitched by the first movement one that Beethoven wrote for the later piano version of the concerto because – never a respecter of convention – he turns it into a duet with the timp and it’s magical. It’s getting more popular and I’ve now heard it within the violin concerto  several times. On this occasion Faust and Bedwi were clearly well adjusted to each other despite the physical distance between them. It was a very arresting few moments. On the other hand I’m not sure I care for the rattly timp rolls in the last part of the third movement but they certainly grab attention.

After the interval it was on to the multifarious glories of Brahms 4 which launched with noteworthy quality of attack, some gloriously grandiloquent brass playing and a magnificent fortissimo ending to the first movement. Herreweghe is good at contrasts and the lush melodies of the andante were a strong prelude to the briskness of the third movement.

Philippe Herreweghe

I never hear this symphony without, at the beginning of the final movement, thinking fondly of the late, great Antony Hopkins – the musicologist and educator not the actor. I once heard him telling a whole venue full of children to listen out for the opening chords in this movement and chant “B-R-A-H-M-S-Spells-Brahms” and then to listen for the recaps and do the same. He was, of course, trying to lay the foundations of active, attentive, analytical even, listening. I bet it worked and those 0nce-young listeners think of that, as I do, whenever this movement is played. I didn’t chant at this performance but I admired the way Herreweghe gave those chords lots of dynamic weight followed by all the energico the composer, or anyone else, could wish for. The trombone work at the end was thrilling too.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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