Arts: Classical: A rapt repose

PHILHARMONIA/ ESCHENBACH RFH, LONDON

NOW THAT the Philharmonia are officially The Phil (Channel 4, Sundays), audiences will inevitably be looking more closely at the individuals who make up the whole. The Philharmonia will have a human face - which has to be good for business. Not that Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms - their bill of fare on Tuesday last - was anything but good business, with or without a face.

Christoph Eschenbach conducted and Imogen Cooper played, not so much as a soloist but as an honorary member of the ensemble, the last of Mozart's Piano Concertos, No 27 in B-flat, K595. She and Eschenbach, to say nothing of the assembled company, shared confidences in subtle and amazing ways. Cooper's playing was exquisitely weighted, not over-articulate, never over-coloured, but unfailingly responsive to Mozart's mood swings, so that a sudden minor-key darkening might be met with a discreet withdrawl in tone, or the slow movement melody "placed" so as to suggest unfamiliarity. And wonder.

Eschenbach was hugely impressive. In Beethoven's Leonore No 3 Overture, the sound of silence stretched the ear for any sign of life in Florestan's dungeon. Tensile pianissimos were used to great colouristic effect, and likewise, the huge triple-forte climax, a single chord flung high and wide as if Amnesty had secured the release of political prisoners everywhere.

Speaking of release, I doubt there was a single person in the Festival Hall who did not share the triumphant inevitability of Brahms' First Symphony as it finally bridged the elusive semitone separating its lowering C minor opening from the tumultuous C major close. Eschenbach excited, urged, and pressed the Philharmonia into some of the very best, and the most personable, playing they've produced in ages. The opening of the symphony was worthy of William Blake, a wash of ascending violins tracing the silver lining through heavy storm clouds. Here was everything you could wish for in a Brahms sound - warmth and amplitude of texture, but with definition and profile and not an ounce of untrimmed fat anywhere.

But that would be Eschenbach putting aside the self-satisfied view of Brahms and revealing more of the radical within. The outer movements acted on the impulse of their harmonic instability, tension built from uncertainty. And where there was repose, there was rapture, too. A most distinguished display: everything to do with making music, not headlines. TV hasn't got to them yet.

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