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.

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