Philharmonia/Christoph von Dohnanyi, Alfred Brendel

Beethoven and Brahms

Royal Festival Hall, 28 June 2007 5 stars

Mackerras

Commissioned by the John Feeney Charitable Trust for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and recorded by the CBSO with Sir Simon Rattle in 1997, Asyla by Thomas Adès is hardly a novelty. Nevertheless, it is likely that the majority of the audience at this concert - most probably attracted by the classics (Beethoven and Brahms) and their two great exponents (Alfred Brendel and Christoph von Dohnányi) - experienced Asyla for the first time.

Adès' orchestra for Asyla is huge; clearly financial restrictions were not uppermost in Adès' compositional thoughts. The number of strings he asks for (16, 16, 14, 12 and 10 players) is well above the regular strength of any symphony orchestra. He adds a grand piano, an upright piano, and a celesta to the harp, though admittedly only one of the latter. The percussion requirements specify six players on about sixty instruments which include tin cans, cutlery and a bag of knives.

Of the four movements, only the third has a title (Ecstasio). The other movements therefore come under the overall title of Asyla which, presumably, might mean asylum of any kind. Adès experiments with unusual sounds and does not seem to worry about the technical challenges he provides for the orchestra. Fortunately, the players of the Philharmonia Orchestra were able to tackle all the difficulties. Particularly notable were the cantabile horn solo and the piccolo duets in the first movement, furthermore the bass oboe solo in the second movement. The harp is treated as a rhythmic rather than a melodic instrument, and the solo violin at the end of the second movement is supposed to be playing espressivo on the very top of the fingerboard. The third movement starts with all the violins in their highest positions yet supposedly extra quietly (ppp). The top position of the violin is used several times in the movement. The rhythmic complexities of the composition reminded me of the 'catch me if you can' game. Dohnányi kept firm control and the orchestra delivered a fascinating performance. Whether the composition is the pioneering work of a gifted composer or an extensive 25 minute-long experiment with sound effects on a rich playground, Adès remains a fact in British musical life.

In the rendering of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor we witnessed the meeting of great minds. Pianist Brendel and conductor Dohnányi were clearly in agreement about all aspects of the piece and they relished performing together. As even the first bar of the orchestral introduction showed, both Dohnányi and Brendel are historically informed musicians. Here, and at later appropriate places (including relevant solos for the piano), the length of notes were measured to those played on period instruments. Brendel's discipline is exemplary. Unlike far too many concerto pianists, he does not move about during orchestral passages to indicate involvement in the music. This is a great artist, not a showman, who focuses on every single note as well as on the whole architecture of the composition. At the same time, Brendel shares the beauty and passion of the music with us. His played the cadenza of the first movement with an enormous range of emotions, as if he played a prolonged fantasia. His poetry and musical diction of the second movement was exemplary, and the section for flute, bassoon and solo piano was chamber music at its finest. Similarly, the oboe's response to the piano's rondo theme in the final movement also represented glorious ensemble playing. On the other hand, Brendel responded with due artistic respect to the beautifully played clarinet themes towards the end of the concerto.

The performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D reminded me of the great days of the Philharmonia under Klemperer. Dohnányi conducted without a score; the music was firmly in his mind and in his whole being. Tempi were excellent throughout. The waltz-like theme of the first movement was elegant and beautiful at the same time; the fortissimo climax later in the same movement was a logical conclusion of the careful build-up. The third movement (Allegretto grazioso) was more gracious than in any other performance I can remember, yet the robust dance in the presto section was electrifying. The fourth movement provided magical pianissimo string sounds (at times played only with the upper half of the bow), passion and majesty.

The orchestra responded superbly to their conductor's interpretation of Brahms' masterpiece. The entire wind section was excellent, and so was the often velvety brass. But I would like to mention the outstanding solos by the flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and trumpet. Towards the end of the last movement the trombones were triumphant, surely as Brahms intended, rather than coarse, as happens so often in concert performances. In their opening theme of the second movement the cellos were slightly subdued and not entirely together. This was the only blemish in an otherwise magnificent performance. On the other hand, the two players at the front desk of the first violins were more united, therefore much stronger, than is customary in the orchestral world.

As per an announcement at the concert, the symphony was recorded for the Philharmonia. It is to be hoped that, in due course, the recording will be made available to the public.

By Agnes Kory