A momentous performance

Philharmonia | Royal festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Every note of a public concert ought to be something momentous. Otherwise, what's the point? Except that when it happens, you realise that much music-making, particularly orchestral, goes in and out of focus, and that the listener's selective memory is the main factor in making it feel coherent after the event.

Thursday's exceptional South Bank event featured consistent, concentrated playing drawn from the Philharmonia by Leonard Slatkin. It peaked midway with a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto that inspired awe on several counts. Joshua Bell, the soloist, has recorded the concerto, but this experience was at the opposite extreme from a routine promo tour. From the start, one long, superbly shaped paragraph followed another as the momentum passed unbroken from violinist to orchestra and back.

To call Bell a virtuoso is faint praise. Unless you knew the famous difficulties of this solo part, you simply would not have noticed when he was handling one of the tricky bits with the aplomb of a great dancer subsuming leaps and twists into an over-riding artistic vision. Bell is the opposite of a look-what-I-can-do player. Boldly confident his stage presence may be, but musical line is all, intensely drawn and never dragged out of shape for superficial impact. The range of tone, volume and character was enormous, and all of a piece.

Accompanying him, the orchestra produced sound colours with a kind of muffled power that did not inhibit the climaxes when they were on their own. Vigorous, pacy and finely balanced playing featured also in the Elgar/Payne Symphony No 3. Already a repertoire piece, Anthony Payne's brilliantly achieved "performing version" (more faint praise!) is starting to open out some of its secrets, as performers become more at ease with it. The expansive later stages of the slow movement revealed a fuller expressive force here, as did the massive pile-up that concludes the symphony - though I still felt that it ended with a punctuality that was atypical of a composer who loved lingering, retrospective epilogues.

Now that the initial round of faithful presentations has run its course, it is time to hear some conductor's ego let loose. This Elgar symphony needs its Barbirolli. Beforehand, Payne was presented with honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of his writing both on music and of music - a supremely well deserved award. Rightly, there was no singling out of his Elgar project.

It's an irony that relatively few of the large audience will know Payne's own music, and it seemed perverse that this concert should begin with something by the widely heard James MacMillan. Not that MacMillan's Sinfonietta went down badly, although the music does have trouble in following its beautifully imagined opening, a vision of keening pipes over quietly warm stillness. The violent interruptions never quite gel into an integrated contrast, and the song returns and fades rather forlornly, as though there was more that needed to be said.