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MUSIC / First time out

Beethoven's First Symphony must have been used a thousand times by orchestras as a warm up item, or as a token classical symphony in a wider ranging programme. But it has rarely been taken seriously for its own unique quality.

Not so in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's outstanding concert at the Barbican Centre on Saturday. The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt did not reduce the symphony by treating it as merely a signpost to greater territories. Instead, he perceived it as a uniquely powerful and original extension of the 18th-century tradition.

For the time being we were led to think not of what came after this dynamic work of genius, only of what had preceded it, with the result that it sounded truly audacious, its use of the orchestra unprecedentedly sonorous, its symphonic manner boldly original.

The orchestra played quite splendidly throughout, generating the livliest of responses to Harnoncourt's undemonstrative yet charismatic direction. The brilliance with which the strings attacked the upward jetting semiquavers that sustain much of the finale's wit and fire was typical of that section's high character, while the wind and brass drew on the widest array of sonorities, whether projecting radiantly in the foreground or poetically supporting.

One of the most important outcomes of the authentic performance movement, with its concentration on the use of period instruments, will probably be seen to be its effect on the playing styles of ensembles outside the movement. When, as in the present instance, a conductor who has long been committed to authentic practice (if from a somewhat nonconformist stance) directs a modern orchestra, the result can be electrifying, combining the best of both worlds. And that is exactly what one felt about this stylish interpretation, as indeed about Marieke Blankestijn's fine performance of Haydn's Second Violin Concerto in which her pure, expressive line was marvellously supported by the orchestral strings.

This potent interpretative mix would seem to be perfectly suited to the performance of Schumann, whose symphonies do present problems if unthinkingly submitted to the potential of the modern symphony orchestra. On this occasion we heard the Rhenish Symphony, of all the canon the most in need of careful balancing, and significantly the most radically worked of Mahler's fascinating re-orchestrations.

Harnoncourt and his players gave us a well nigh ideal performance. The suite-like succession of genre pieces which makes up the central sequence of movements was delivered with exquisite delicacy of feeling. Textures which can sound a little clotted were clarified to perfection, so that the typical blend of wind and strings yielded shades of poetic meaning rather than a suspicion of miscalculation.

The finale, too, was superbly managed, racing to its touching final triumph with a full heart, and always rhythmically pointed and well sprung. Only in the majestic first movement were there a few doubts.

In keeping the sometimes heavily laden textures bouyant and clear, Harnoncourt sometimes lost some of Schumann's characteristic sostenuto - a difficult task indeed to strike a happy medium in this respect. But this was still a heart warming interpretation which drew a deserved ovation.