Music SWFSO / Gielen RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
Michael Gielen being the latest conductor "found" by the record companies, albeit in his 70th year, how apt that, with the Sudwestfunk Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, he was available for comment at the Festival Hall on Saturday as part of the South Bank's International Orchestral Season. Musical comment, that is, in the form of intriguing accounts of Brahms's Violin Concerto and Schubert's Ninth Symphony.

Light years away from the easy-listening school, Gielen's artistry declines the charms of smooth orchestral blending and passing detail writ large for easy effect. Maybe EMI have scratched out their three lucky numbers, maybe not. But from this encounter, at least, one clear fact emerged: with Gielen, what you hear is always what you get.

And the clue to his integrity lies in meticulous preparation. Not just the luxury of a German state orchestra but Gielen's own character dictates that the SWF players are nothing if not a drilled ensemble. Conducting much of the Schubert by the phrase rather than the beat, he could let these dedicated followers off the leash because he knew they would unswervingly stay at heel. Though the frequent impression was of someone doing little, the work had already been done in rehearsal. That meant poor marks for spontaneity. But, as for style, this was the conductor's immutable view of the piece in question, whatever the venue, whether concert hall or recording studio.

His view, also, of the Brahms; for the unsmiling young German soloist Christian Tetzlaff was clearly a figure in Gielen's high-minded mould. Hans von Bulow, Wagner's cuckold, described the Brahms as a concerto against the violin. The violin wins in the end, of course, as in all good examples of the genre. But with Gielen and Tetzlaff so rarely at odds, there was never much chance for the playful, if necessary, belief that things might turn out otherwise. As in the Schubert, horns and trumpets offered natural, authentic instruments - complete with some authentically natural fluffs. But the raw, al fresco sounds of the woodwind in the long preludial strophe of the concerto's slow movement sounded like a naturist's challenge to the blended mode of tone production - and it worked. Tetzlaff could also relax and prove his worth in the sunlit uplands of the composer's lyricism. No less here than in the Bach encore, his playing was superb. Just a touch of humour was all that was lacking to complete its musical deportment.

The evening's other hero was the SWF oboist Alexander Ott, whose solo passages in the Brahms and in Schubert's Andante were things of beauty. On the broader scale, orchestral sections remained apart in timbre, though each knew the others' game plan - and their leader's. Perilously fast, Schubert's opening melody returned triumphally to end the first movement in identical real-time tempo, revealing Gielen's precise, analytical view of the form, though doing little to foster a sense of dramatic flexibility. That's a risk you take with a cerebral conductor, but you know where you are - and so does he. Those forthcoming CDs promise interesting times.