Christoph von Dohnányi, who turned ninety on September 8 last year, has been a regular visitor to London (my neck of the woods) for many years, invariably with the Philharmonia Orchestra (pictured) – as Principal Guest, then Chief, and now he is Honorary Conductor for Life.
Dohnányi’s most-recent appearance in the capital was during 2018, on June 7, a Royal Festival Hall concert that culminated in an impressive, intensively rehearsed, account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Two years later it was good to be reminded of Dohnányi’s continuing artistry, courtesy of BBC Radio 3, which last night (June 29) broadcast an up-to-date concert that he gave with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein – twice, on 23 & 24 November last year. (R3 didn’t divulge which of these it relayed, and it’s available to listen for thirty days.)
The programme opened with György Ligeti’s Atmosphères – that fastidious and hypnotic study of colour, texture and timbre, often on the periphery of audibility – from which the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin emerged indivisibly, as if made for each other, here radiant, organic and climactically sonorous.
There followed Alban Berg’s in memoriam Violin Concerto with Rainer Honeck (one of the Vienna Phil’s three concertmasters) as soloist. and furthermore it’s the composer’s musical swansong, Honeck negotiated Berg’s soulful and impassioned writing with much expression, phrasal poise and technical brio, and the Vienna Phil, accompanying one of its own, crafted the complementary complexities with sensitivity and assurance under Dohnányi’s meticulous management; perfectly placed details abounded.
Finally, Brahms’s Third Symphony in a wholesome and dynamically observant account, Dohnányi siding more with the music’s majesty and wistfulness than its passion, although the latter was present incrementally, peaking in the (to end quietly) Finale; a perfectly valid – autumnal – approach in music that the august Vienna Philharmonic could easily sleepwalk through but was fully involved with on this occasion; in particular, the middle movements had a poetic fluidity that was very affecting.
Looking ahead, if it is able to go ahead, Covid-19 restrictions having been redefined, Dohnányi’s next London engagement is scheduled for September 27, a Brahms affair, including Symphony 3 as it happens, and Piano Concerto 1 with Martin Helmchen.
And, as a postscript, one equally hopes that two other Philharmonia RFH presentations will take place, also featuring ‘senior’ maestros – Herbert Blomstedt conducting Bruckner 8 (29 November) and then Riccardo Muti leading Verdi’s Requiem (10 December).