Music / On comparing notes: Raymond Monelle on the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic

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THERE was a time when a comparison of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra with the London Philharmonic would have been an easy decision. The decision is still easy enough, but things have changed for both orchestras.

Indeed, it was distressing to hear the great Russian orchestra, now the St Petersburg Philharmonic, reduced to such a gross, faded level. The characteristic Eastern European sounds, the reedy clarinets, shimmering horns, and braying brass, are still there, but the ensemble has lost its bite. The woodwind have taken on a wheezy tone, and the strings simply cannot play together; the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings at Usher Hall on Friday sounded vague, athritically unable to gesture with any space or tenderness.

The conducter, Mariss Jansons, tries to combine elemental energy with a sense of narrative continuity, and this worked well in Weber's Oberon Overture. But in the symphonies, Jansons could only secure a few isolated moments of satisfaction. The sternness of Shostakovich's Fifth was most obvious in the passages of stillness, pools of silence full of a distant threat. There was some black humour, too, in the grotesque organ- grinding scherzo, the final oboe solo quavering drunkenly. But when the structure bore fruit in moments of breadth and triumph, we got nothing better than a crude spluttering energy. The finale charged off much too fast, suggesting the test piece at a brass band contest.

At the concert on Saturday, Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony lost its shape and warmth because Jansons selected tempi just a micro-second too fast, making it impossible for the players to poise and caress the varied fragments of melody. All was empty bustle; the strings toiled to keep up and the wind tone was grainy and sour.

Perhaps the habit of lunging thoughtlessly forward had started earlier in the evening in Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. The soloist, Mikhail Rudy, never stopped to consider the most appropriate tempo for each passage, but simply played as fast as possible. Any small gap that might be suggested by rhetorical or technical matters was instantly filled with notes.

The London Philharmonic, on the other hand, are on the crest of a wave, and the appointment of Franz Welser-Most as chief conducter has proved to be inspirational. Every one of the varied textures in Bruckner's Eighth Symphony on Monday was fresh and newly minted, and the centre of the texture was rock firm. The young Austrian gave every note its full value; in slower passages the phrases were surrounded by ample space, but the gathering of speed and force could lead to climaxes that cut like a sabre. This solemn score never took on the gloomy scowl of the other orchestra: the vast slow movement had plenty of rhythmic life and was warm and generous. At times the fiery purity of the sonority was quite miraculous. The scherzo rang with inner echoes, like the clamour inside a belfry. This was supremely optimistic Bruckner, the vernal string harmonies of the finale flooding into every corner and redeeming any menacing references to the first movement.

With its dense, broad string tone, its refined woodwind and noble brass, this orchestra could not help turning the music into a massive gesture of reassurance, entirely in accord with the conductor's total commitment. This was the kind of ideal performance by which all others are measured.