MUSIC / Taking shape: Philharmonia - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
The sincerity of Tchaikovsky's music has never been doubted, but its inexorably symphonic logic has only been given its due in comparatively recent times. His innovative structural genius was always deemed inferior to his melodic and dramatic inspiration. One can understand how it happened: Tchaikovsky's violent contrasts of moods, tempo and material stood out so markedly that attention was initially distracted from the subtlety of thought and structure that encompassed them.

But profound musical thinker Tchaikovsky undoubtedly was. After Beethoven no one, not even Mahler, broadened the horizons of symphonic logic more radically, and the Fourth Symphony, to take an example, remains one of the most astonishing achievements of 19th-century music. Kurt Sanderling, in a most impressive concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Tuesday, revealed just how overwhelming an achievement, by avoiding sensational rhetoric and lyric indulgence and showing the music as one of the great feats of purely symphonic organisation.

His was the reverse of the kind of performance we hear from Russian interpreters, which we tend to believe are in in some sense authentic. It was an architectural rather than a romantically biographical performance, but no less powerful for all that. In achieving his ends, Sanderling took great care with the instrumental texture, and the Philharmonia produced sounds of warmth, clarity and subtlety. The big brass challenges were splendidly delivered (the extra trumpet delivering the fate motif made a searing effect), the wind section brought an exquisite refinement to Tchaikovsky's abundant lyricism, and the strings ranged from brilliance in fortissimo attack to a touching inwardness in quieter cantabile. The overall picture was of a sound specially tailored to the symphony's expressive needs.

Earlier, in Sibelius' Violin Concerto, a different sound world had been created, integrating the wide contrasts between the soloist's tender flights and the sombre power of the many key tuttis. The complexity of the relationship between soloist and orchestra called at times for an exceptional awareness on the conductor's part. Clarity is essential, yet the orchestra should not seem to be losing intensity. It was a problem that Sanderling addressed with great care; details that lie hidden in many performances emerged here in surprising focus.

Ida Haendel characterised her solos with fire and purity, launching the haunting opening paragraph with imaginative freshness. Perhaps towards the close of the work she lost a little of her initial drive, but this was an interpretation newly envisioned and daringly carried through.