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CLASSICAL MUSIC RPO / Gatti Barbican, London

Attending a Daniele Gatti Royal Philharmonic concert is rather like witnessing the careful restoration of a slightly scuffed quality instrument. OK, there's still some work to be done and listeners weaned on Europe's best will note a certain lack of refinement; but if Friday's Barbican concert of Schubert and Richard Strauss was anything to go by, Gatti's methods are already working minor miracles. The Unfinished Symphony was distinguished by control, mobility and dynamism. The first movement's repeated exposition was appropriately fluid, with a gently lilting second subject and powerful projection of the shuddering full chords that follow. The pizzicato footfalls that lead into the development section were meaningfully emphasised and the development's opening paragraph glowered ominously. Gatti's pacing of the second movement was consistent with that of the first, though his manner of shading marked a subtle contrast, being altogether lighter and more animated - as befits the prescribed con moto. This was a decidedly Apollonian Unfinished, taut, well drilled and with bel canto reportage of Schubert's melodic lines.

Parallel qualities informed Mendelssohn's First Piano Concerto, especially the first movement's blithely singing second idea. Gatti's soloist was Maurizio Zanini, first-prize winner at the 1986 Dino Ciani International Piano Competition and a spirited classicist in the manner of the young Rudolf Serkin. Zanini's impetuosity paid highest dividends in the opening movement, whereas his delicacy informed the playful Molto allegro e vivace finale and his poise, the lovely Andante. Back in 1990, Zanini made the first complete recording of Reger's magnificent Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Telemann and I would love to hear him give us, say, a Reger- Brahms recital.

After Mendelssohn's sunshine concerto came a sensuous Richard Strauss double-bill, with Artur Rodzinski's comprehensive Rosenkavalier suite placed first. Granted that the performance's virtues outweighed its faults many times over, but I have to admit that moments of internal confusion occasionally muddied the complex tapestry of Strauss's lavish scoring. Which isn't to suggest that the players weren't actually following Gatti so much as to underline their need to follow - or at least listen to - each other more. That, I suppose, is the area where there is most potential for executive improvement. Otherwise, high points of the performance included softly cushioned string playing (with excellent solo work from guest-leader Igor Gruppman), a fine lilt to the waltz sequences and a rush of excitement for the waltz-time finale. It made for a strangely piecemeal concoction (those unfamiliar with the operatic original will have needed a fairly specific plan of action), whereas Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils" stands securely on its own slender feet. A wave of titters coursed through the hall as Strauss's already large orchestra was supplemented by yet more wind and brass players; but, thereafter, the conductor's snake-like gestures coaxed sinuous textures and a hot-breathed sequence of wind solos. Come the thrilling final onslaught and Gatti's pride was both visible and justified. Indeed, it was warming to see the orchestra applaud him as vigorously as he was applauding them.

Robert Cowan