Music: Phil-harmony, as not seen on TV

Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London

Isle of Wight International Oboe Festival

Newport, Isle of Wight

Royal Philharmonic Society Awards

Dorchester Hotel, London

When people ask which is the best orchestra in Britain, I say the LSO, almost out of habit. Wouldn't anyone, given the brilliance, dynamism and authority of its performances during the past few years? But there has always been an alternative lobby for the Philharmonia's more noble, European sound. Nobility might not be the word that leapt to mind if you watched the recent Philharmonia docusoap on television - in which the only sound was of musicians whinging - but you won't have seen, or heard, in those programmes much of what the orchestra does best.

Which is to give concerts. Almost everything you saw on television - the sulks, the frustration, the bickering - was filmed off-stage, presumably because of the prohibitive union rates for filming artists in action. On-stage, at the moment, it's a more uplifting story. With its new Ashkenazy-led Rachmaninoff series "Hidden Perspectives", the orchestra is having a field day: playing to packed houses, and playing superbly well.

The grand embracing eloquence of last Tuesday's concert was at least the equal of anything I've heard recently from the LSO, and the only pity is that it wasn't happening in a better sound-space. Time and again the Royal Festival Hall lets its performers down; and when they're producing something of real quality, as here, it leaves you wishing that the whole performance could be air-lifted to Birmingham or Cardiff. Even Basingstoke Anvil would be a better option: any hall that lets the music breathe and resonate more freely than the RFH.

But acoustics aside, Tuesday's performance did exactly what this series has set out to do, which is to make Rachmaninoff respectable again. The readings - of the Second Symphony, Third Piano Concerto, and a rare orchestral fantasy from the composer's youth, Prince Rostislav - were rigorous as well as cultivated. When the tunes came (and when don't they in Rachmaninoff?) we were asked not just to love them but to justify them, rediscovering the strength of purpose in those long, stretched skeins of melancholia.

Melancholy was, of course, Rachmaninoff's stock-in-trade. Every one of his symphonies and piano concertos comes in a minor key, with reserves of pathos that caused Charles Ives (that most effortfully virile of composers) to call him "Rachnotmanenough". But Ives never heard the Third Concerto played by Arcadi Volodos, who was the pianist last Tuesday. Had Ives done so, it would probably have wiped the smile clean off his face.

Volodos is the new challenge to Evgeny Kissin, with whom he shares the same young age, the same Russian background and, to a large extent, the same adoring public. But Kissin said hello to stardom first and has managed to keep one step ahead of the game - with the result that Volodos seems to have gone out of his way to be as un-Kissinlike as possible. He plays with liquid fluency, a smooth legato, and a rich, fat tone - achieved (mostly) without hammering the keyboard, which he tends to pump rather than to hit. With a grand, offhand flamboyance that makes him a more glamorous performer than his rival, Volodos is stylish, strong, enormously impressive; and he had the audience squealing with excitement.

I'd have squealed myself but for a nagging doubt about the sincerity of his playing; and I find his personality less generous and more self- satisfied than Kissin who, accordingly, keeps my vote. But then, this isn't a balloon debate. We can have them both - and that the Philharmonia does, in this remarkable Rachmaninoff series, is its extreme good fortune.

The band is also lucky, at the moment, to have an outstanding principal clarinet, Mark Van De Wiel, who played the big solo in the slow movement of the Second Symphony with unforgettable directness. And in truth it's been a memorable week all round for woodwind playing, thanks to the Isle of Wight International Oboe Competition which reached its concerto-finals stage last Sunday. The IWIOC is an oddly charming affair that runs every two years under the aegis of the veteran oboist Evelyn Rothwell (aka Lady Barbirolli). It attracts a bizarre quantum of interest among oboe-loving Tory politicians and, from the Bottomleys to David Mellor, there were half a dozen members past or present in the swing of things last weekend. I'd be interested to know if Labour has a rival competition somewhere - maybe for a People's Instrument like the guitar or the recorder.

One certain thing is that the oboe is not a People's Instrument. It doesn't draw so many players as the flute or clarinet, because it's more expensive to buy; it hasn't the sex appeal of the saxophone; and it hasn't the potential glamour of the violin, cello or piano. But for those very reasons it's an instrument that needs promotion - hence the importance of the IWIOC, which is one of only a few such competitions in existence. It's small, select, but with a genuinely international draw that this year took in 12 countries. If nothing else, it's a fascinating monitor of the extent to which woodwind playing is becoming far more standardised throughout the world.

There was a time when national sounds varied considerably. The French were nasal, the Germans heavy, and the English (whose tastes were fixed by the legendary oboist Leon Goosens) plaintively fresh. But now those distinctions count for very little, eroded by a general trend toward agility and control. Although there were differences between the three finalists last Sunday, it was their technique rather than their tone that stood out - in performances of Strauss's post-war pastoral-escapist Oboe Concerto with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

The standard this year was reasuringly high (last time round it wasn't), and the final ranking can only have reflected a judicial prioritisation of certain qualities over others. Aisling Casey (Ireland) was strong on control; Jan Thuri (Czech Republic) on charm; Helene Devilleneuve (France) on style. I'd have given the prize to Ms Devilleneuve, despite a hyperactive platform manner. The judges, though, preferred Ms Casey; and that's fair enough. All three have good careers ahead of them, so mark the names. You'll soon be seeing them around.

Most of the names honoured at last Wednesday's Royal Philharmonic Society Awards were fairly predictable: John Tomlinson, again, as Best Singer; Bernard Haitink as Conductor; Pierre Boulez for Chamber Composition, and so on. But there were worthy newcomers too with Lisa Milne, Best Young Artist; James O'Donnell's Westminster Cathedral Choir (so showered these days with prizes it must be a terrible embarrassment to the Abbey) for Large Ensemble; Henri Dutilleux for Large-Scale Composition; and the Ulster Orchestra for Education.

They were all richly deserved, and true measures of the state of our musical nation in that the RPS Awards are the most reliable, most comprehensive, and most prestigious gongs of their kind in Britain. The only thing they leave out is Best Musical Joke which came, last Wednesday, from the accompanist Graham Johnson as he picked up the Instrumental award. Unconnected with violas, it was a reminiscence of the late, great Gerald Moore on his own profession. Old accompanists, said Moore, don't die. They just fake away.

Hidden Perspectives: South Bank Centre, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to Sunday 23 May.

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution