Music Philharmonia / Kurt Sanderling RFH, SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
Three recent concerts at the Royal Festival Hall saw the grandfatherly figure of Kurt Sanderling preside over three distinguished pianists, then direct three of the repertory's strongest symphonic masterpieces. Last Tuesday, Maria Joao Pires invested Chopin's Second Concerto with a generous roster of tonal colours. She'd linger affectionately, then rush off on an impulse before drawing back again for a whispered pianissimo. It was expressive playing: wistful, strong-fingered and imaginative.

On Thursday, 19-year-old Frederick Kempf - BBC Young Musician of the Year, 1992 - stood in at short notice for an indisposed Mitsuko Uchida. The featured concerto was Mozart's No 13, K415 and Kempf's playing incorporatedthe most exquisite soft passagework. The tone was ravishing, too, with rapt diminuendos in the Andante and much stylish phrasing in the Rondeau-finale.

And lastly, on Sunday, there was Alfred Brendel, who granted Schumann's Concerto heartfelt advocacy and a host of keenly observed detail - not least towards the end of the Intermezzo, where chiming chords were perfectly weighted.

Sanderling's accompaniments were patiently supportive in the Chopin and Mozart and urgently responsive in the Schumann, whereas the first of his three symphony performances, Schubert's "Great" C Major, recalled the grand manner of an earlier era. Here there were no new tricks but plenty of old ones: the accelerando into the first-movement Allegro, for example, and the epic broadening at its coda. Both gestures are reminiscent of Furtwangler and yet Sanderling's dynamics, tempos and phrasing were very much his own. The second movement was taken at a fair lick, the third was sensitively shaped and the fourth's fierce central climax found the strings playing flat out. Occasional signs of tiredness reminded us of the day's sweltering heat, but the sheer musicality of Sanderling's reading met with cheers of approval.

Thursday's Bruckner Fourth had plenty of spirit but, again, orchestral execution left something to be desired - especially in the Scherzo, where crucial wind-brass exchanges suffered momentary slow reflexes. And yet Sanderling's sense of line and pacing were impeccable, his drawing of the slow movement's viola-writing notably lyrical and his overall grasp of Bruckner's structure truly comprehensive. String tremolandos were forceful, key climaxes had plenty of impact and the brass combined for some organ-like sonorities. It was a real performance which, if less than tidy, pulled no punches.

Best of all, though, was Sunday's Eroica, an assertive reading with swift tempos, punchy accents, a noble if mobile Marcia funebre and a finale where every variation was given its head. Here the orchestra was on fine form and it was heartening to see its distinguished leader emeritus, Hugh Bean, offer Sanderling such vigorous applause. In fact, all the players followed suit and the audience responded with a voluminous ovation.

ROBERT COWAN

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