MUSIC / A first class Fifth: Anthony Payne on Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Phil in unerring form

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RARELY can we have been more aware of the stature of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra than in their Festival Hall programme under Sir Georg Solti on Monday. There was hardly a phrase that did not reveal some subtlety of ensemble discipline or soloistic colour, while the larger perspectives showed us an orchestra thinking and acting quite miraculously as one. Add Sir Georg's musicality, his octogenarian wisdom and astoundingly youthful physicality, and you had a formula for profound artistic communication.

Indeed, the interpretation of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony that ended the concert could not have been improved upon; it had certainly rarely been equalled in my experience. What was almost immediately evident was the distinction of Solti's musicality in stringing together the opening sequence of ideas with convincing symphonic continuity. Often, Shostakovich's expository method seems to be offering a rag-bag of casually linked thoughts. Here, each new motive or variation emerged with perfect inevitability to effect a logical, unbroken musical thread, all of which enabled the tightening of the formal screw in the big central development to achieve even greater tension.

The dynamism of the orchestra at this point was phenomenal: the strings attacked their driving rhythms with unquenchable vigour, while the great brass statements, delivered with rich sonority, were perfectly integrated into the overall texture. In fact, it was this quality that differentiated the Viennese playing from the soloistic sound of Russian performances we have experienced in recent years, where thematic statements stand out with all the bold edginess of poster art.

If the orchestra's warmth of sound seemed Brucknerian in provenance, the passionate conviction with which it was applied to Shostakovich's rather different sound world was utterly convincing, and nowhere more so than in the string-playing, which is perhaps the orchestra's chief glory. The big textures of the slow movement drew an incandescent cantabile, while the Allegretto's pizzicatos were delivered with whiplash intensity. This expressive concentration was not reserved for ear-catching moments: even menial accompanimental tasks were performed at high voltage.

The concert had opened with Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, and here too the orchestral discipline and sheer enthusiasm were things to marvel at. The first movement, taken at a cracking pace, seemed initially a little too hasty for the music's good, despite the clarity of articulation. But the rightness of Solti's tempo soon established itself; the movement's powerful undertow was always in evidence, and the orchestra dug deep to reveal the richness of feeling that Mendelssohn so elegantly controlled and articulated.

The perfect weight of utterance was also discovered for the two middle movements, where light and shadow played across the music's surface while a finely gauged lightness of touch prevailed. Then the finale was launched with explosive power. Here, indeed, was playing to crown a splendid performance. The momentum generated by the strings' pounding saltarello beneath spirited wind- playing was sustained with great determination, and the final pages were ablaze with energy, Sir Georg kicking up his heels with coltish glee.