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Philharmonia 15 February 2024 (Susan Elkin reviews)

Philharmonia – Elim Chan – Alice Sara Ott – Royal Festival Hall – 15 February 2024

Elim Chan launched Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture at a cracking pace. Thereafter we got dramatic contrast assertively controlled by this dynamic woman whose power on the podium is in inverse proportion to her diminutive stature. She beats time energetically and cues entries scrupulously without any excess posturing and that’s refreshing. There was some exceptionally pleasing brass playing in this opener.

Then it was off (briefly) with upper strings, on with several percussionists, piano wheeled into position, everyone regrouped and we were into the UK premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Piano Concerto. It was written for Alice Sara Ott who has already played it elsewhere. She’s a charismatic player to watch – barefoot in cobalt blue, her dark hair flashing and bouncing.

The concerto is dedicated to, and inspired by, the composer’s sister, a dancer and choreographer who has cancer. The movements are titled “How to Dance”, “How to Breathe and “How to Feel”. The first of these is very percussive with an emphasis on ascending scales and a warmly lyrical cadenza. You can hear both the dance and the sad anxiety in the middle movement and it’s a treat (for an amateur second violinist like me) to see first violins “chugging” while seconds sail above with a melody.

There’s an evocative segue into the third movement which is lively with some ethereal percussion work. The solo part is, I suspect (although I am not a pianist) dauntingly challenging but Ott has clearly made it her own and the triumphant ending is quite something.

I am very fond of Scheherazade which is just as well since this is the second time I’ve reviewed it in less than a fortnight. It’s the combination of wistfulness and grandiloquence which gets to me every time.

The solo violin, said by Rimsky-Korsakov himself (who disliked over enthusiastic linking of music to story)  to represent the voice of the story teller between tales and it was played here with stunning sensitivity by Philharmonia leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay.

Lim’s gestures became bigger now as she coaxed out the big sounds that his glorious war horse of a piece needs. But she also made sure we heard and revelled in that fabulous bassoon solo over rumbling double basses and the insouciance of the snare drum and flute in the third movement. The final movement came with oodles of drama at the opening but it was beautifully pointed and never self-indulgent. They really played the big melodies before the end with make-you-smile warmth too. And then came the magical final violin solo and that searing harmonic note which ends the piece. Bravo indeed.



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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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