Two sides of the same Brahmsian coin were heard in performances that sought to illuminate restraint and drama; an approach that was mostly successful, but it was Manfred Honeck’s account of the First Symphony that blazed with interest.
Brahms’s Violin Concerto was almost introverted, although its Classical manners were finely honed. Ray Chen was technically secure, but his uneven tone – gruff-sounding low register and sweet high notes – was discernible early on. Added to this was his relatively modest dynamic range that kept the London Philharmonic strings under wraps for much of the first movement. That said, Chen drew on several shades of piano and made expressive use of this in Joachim’s cadenza which became more convincing; Chen’s decorative figures and subtle dynamic gradations eventually stilling the auditorium.
Matters considerably improved in the comfortably-paced slow movement (set in motion by Ian Hardwick’s beguiling oboe) where a more relaxed Chen now found a beauty of tone and delicacy of touch. Its amiable tempo found its way into a well-behaved Finale, fireworks only making an appearance in a rousing coda; wild and rustic but almost too late. Returning for an encore, and borrowing the leader Pieter Schoeman’s bow, Chen produced one of his party pieces, a dazzling rendition of a Paganini Caprice, No.21 in A.
The First Symphony was given a distinctly Romantic stance, not in the sense of any indulgence, but in dramatic contrasts. With pounding double basses and timpani, the opening was almost apocalyptic, the threatening mood giving way to a deliberate fermata (where none is marked) from which Honeck launched into the Allegro. Ominous clouds may have temporarily departed, and the movement continued with no-less degree of drive, without any sense of effortful striving to mirror Brahms's struggle to write the piece. Thereafter, remarkable buoyancy was achieved where phrases leapt off the page as their natural curves were accentuated. Honeck’s focus on the music’s theatrical potential presumably prompted his decision to ignore the exposition repeat.
The warmth and polish of the LPO strings and persuasive solo contributions (Hardwick and Schoeman again, and Thomas Watmough on clarinet) brought dividends to the Andante, where Honeck created an almost madrigalian lightness. In a brisk Allegretto the ear was drawn to the clarity of the basses and cellos giving nimble support to eloquent woodwind figures. Zesty accents in the central panel emphasised the charm of the outer sections. Impressively disciplined string-playing initiated the Finale, its threatening mood soon lifted by David Pyatt’s resplendent horn solo (over perfectly balanced trombones). Following Brahms’s equivalent to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ – here considerably fleet-of-foot – the music erupted into a fervent affirmation of life; its darkness-to-light transformation unrestrained and all the more triumphant in the brilliance of the closing chords. This reading may have been idiosyncratic at times but it was also strikingly vibrant.