Since its foundation in the mid-1940s the Philharmonia Orchestra has excelled in core-nineteenth-century Austro-German repertoire.
Few Symphonies occupy quite such a significant role as Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’, yet it can be a difficult work to bring off. Starting and closing quietly, in some hands its two movements, which are of similar duration and tempo markings, can seem soporific. From Jakub Hrůša, employing antiphonal violins and left-positioned basses, all of the Philharmonia’s most characteristic virtues of warm string sound, blended woodwinds and mellow brass, were to the fore. The special ingredient however was Hrůša’s unerring ability to find the right tempos – unhurried but forward moving in the opening movement and completely avoiding the static quality which can bedevil the second. Add to this an intensely dramatic development section, carefully calibrated dynamics and balances throughout as well as some plangent woodwind solos in second movement and we were treated to an extremely fine reading.
Karen Gomyo who was born in Tokyo, began her musical career in Montreal and New York and now lives in Berlin. Frequently chosen by aspiring violinists as their debut piece, Mendelssohn’s (second) Concerto may be an obvious choice, but it is not without its pitfalls. For a start the soloist makes their initial entry within two bars of the opening. Gomyo took a little time to settle with every I dotted and every T double-crossed almost as she were trying too hard, but as the rendition progressed it got better and better, culminating in a delightfully quicksilver Finale. Hrůša and the Philharmonia stuck to her like glue, providing an outstandingly stylish accompaniment, at once fleet but transparently balanced and permitting much frequently obscured detail to emerge.
The evening’s highlight was the deeply satisfying reading of Brahms’s Third Symphony. The first movement (with its exposition repeat rightly taken, as in the Schubert, and gaining in cumulative power second time round) surged forward and once again displayed Hrůša’s gift for choosing the tempo giusto. The central movements were particularly impressive, the first of them with interchanges between woodwinds and string dovetailed beautifully and the soaring climax reached an intensity which gave this movement an emotional and structural weight it seldom achieves. The Poco allegretto flowed graciously and brought an elegant horn solo but Hrůša rightly reserved full firepower for the Finale, leaving us in no doubt where the real crux lies. After this the quiet final pages registered perfectly, serving as a kind of emotional balm. Hrůša has recently renewed his Chief Conductorship of the Bamberg Symphony until 2026. Lucky Bamberg.