For its current Southbank season the Philharmonia has installed Anna Clyne as featured composer. She is curating the orchestra’s early-evening series of new-music programmes, while her own works feature prominently in the mainstream events too – Santtu-Matias Rouvali opened his latest concert with the UK premiere of Clyne’s Color Field.
Jointly inspired by the philanthropist Melanie Sabelhaus (to whom the score is dedicated) and the paintings of Mark Rothko, the three movements are titled Yellow, Red and Orange, with a traditional Serbian melody woven through the textures in tribute to Sabelhaus’s background. It makes a satisfying triptych, with the central Red movement’s incessant, pounding percussion and vaguely martial brass framed by the rocking string harmonics of the opening Yellow and the consolatory quiet of the Orange finale.
Like the orchestra’s account of the Clyne, the performance of Dvořák’s seventh symphony at the opposite end of the evening seemed to be scrupulously prepared. Rouvali was at pains to seek out the kernels of lyricism in what is one of Dvořák’s most dramatic orchestral works, sometimes perhaps at the expense of sheer excitement. Yet any real affection was kept at arms’ length, so that the performance offered more to admire than to engage with emotionally.
The concert’s centrepiece was Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, with Igor Levit as the pianist. It was a typical Levit performance – effortlessly secure and utterly clear-sighted, intense and urgent without ever seeming bombastic, and with jewel-like passages of pianissimo playing in which every detail was a crystalline wonder. Levit had in fact come into the concert as a replacement; the soloist was originally intended to be Lars Vogt, who died in September. The Philharmonia had dedicated this concert to Vogt’s memory and Levit’s encore seemed to be a personal tribute too – the final two movements of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played with immense delicacy and tact, as if every note was precious.