RPO / Sanderling, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Daniele Gatti was sorely missed. The inspirational Italian conductor was indisposed and his short-notice replacement, Thomas Sanderling, achieved the dubious distinction of never once looking at his soloist – the stately John Lill – during the great B-flat Piano Concerto No 2 by Brahms. Indeed, at the end of the slow movement, Lill was waiting for the conductor, hands poised over the keyboard in readiness for a quick transition into the finale. The conductor's eyes were elsewhere; so, too, his musical etiquette.

But etiquette apart, how can a conductor hope to achieve a seamless accord with the keyboard – especially at transition points – if he's not looking at the position of the pianist's hands? Answer: he can't. The numerous instances of poorly co-ordinated interaction between piano and orchestra were a direct result of Sanderling not watching. Communication in this, of all concertos – it's sometimes referred to as the fifth Brahms symphony with piano obbligato – is crucial.

And so we had a performance where only the key orchestral solos – notably the Royal Philharmonic's first horn and cello, both accomplished – truly reflected the generosity and warmth of Lill's playing. The good news is that this veteran of the keyboard (winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1970) is still a majestic presence. From his very first entry, mellow and relaxed, fingers caressing more than compressing the keys, one was immediately drawn in by the unforced, unselfconscious beauty of the sound. In a work positively radiating nostalgia, Lill's touch was entirely in character.

Yes, occasionally I wanted him to relish the moment more, and there's no doubt that more appassionato in the dynamic second movement would have made for a keener contrast to the first – but the slow movement was exquisite, the veiled colours of the becalmed middle section leaving a lasting impression.

Sanderling then went on to give us tamely characterised accounts of two Richard Strauss tone poems. The RPO did their level best to pull something vital from between the measures of his prosaic time-beating, but in "Tod und Verklärung" the life-force ebbed away long before the momentous tam-tam stroke, while in "Till Eulenspiegel" the scurrilous rattle-waving prankster was relegated to the ranks of retired court jester. Oh, dear.