MUSIC / Summit meeting: Meredith Oakes on Kurt Sanderling's Brahms series with the Philharmonia

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The Independent Culture
The D minor Piano Concerto was counterweighted after the interval with the equally grand, fresh and headlong First Symphony: a pairing as extravagant as it was natural. On Tuesday Kurt Sanderling and the Philharmonia began their Brahms series at the Festival Hall with a programme, and an attitude, radically opposed to ceremonious habit.

Jumping from a repertoire dominated by Mozart into the biggest, broadest, most difficult romantic concerto of all, Mitsuko Uchida found the rhythmic centre and stayed with it through death- defying plunges among mountainous chords. This was the most monumental, thrilling and spontaneous Brahms D minor I've ever heard. Spontaneous - but even in the most rugged extremes, or the throatiest rhapsodies, she wasn't out of control for a second. She could spring back into crisp Mozartean figuration, or the most refined and expressive pianissimo, on the turn of a note.

Soloist and conductor thought together and pioneered together. Kurt Sanderling's slow tempi allowed weight to accumulate and tumble as if universal laws of physics were demonstrating themselves. This, along with the animal sensuousness of the timbres, and the glow and flare of the exceptionally bold dynamics, brought out the nature imagery lying hidden in this so-called abstract music of Brahms. He emerged full of rich youthful imaginings, imbued with sublime scenery of a typically German- romantic kind. The first movement was the sea, rearing up with giant trills like ranks of foam along the tops of the waves, or cradling the piano like a boat. The second movement was a nocturne drenched in heavy dew, with dominant- seventh figurations stealing down on it like shafts of moonlight. Uchida pitched into the upbeat-downbeat paradox of the third movement's opening like someone throwing a rock, and followed up with a chain of darkly brilliant festivities, as unstoppable as Bach.

Great love of life instead of great sanctimoniousness: Sanderling kept breaking through the crust of the Brahms tradition and uncovering buried poetic treasure in all its weird, energised shapes. His concentration was astonishing. It seemed impossible that the Symphony No 1 could create a new spell in the hall after something as intense as the concerto. It would have been enough to sit back and admire the lovely texture and fine jointing of all the Philharmonia's instrumental sections, so spaciously exposed at this time of high morale. But Sanderling was an irresistible creative furnace. Even the inner movements of the symphony were never for a moment innocuous or bland. In the memorable third movement, the village crowd didn't just dance out a ritual from the nostalgic past: they jostled into the here and now with manic exuberance. In the fourth, the famous horn theme was not the usual sententious preachy balm. It was a healing impulse springing like an imperious need out of the hard centre of sustained conflict. The Brucknerian span of Sanderling's approach favoured long, flawless lines as much as detailed virtuoso swells and fades. Brahms with his white beard grew young, modern and eager to communicate. - Series continues 26, 28, 30 June, RFH, South Bank, SE1 (071-928 8800)

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