LPO, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

We were all set for a warmly authoritative Beethoven cycle, when Kurt Masur suddenly took ill and the LPO distributed the honours among four very different substitutes. First was the gaunt, spidery Frans Brüggen, whose sculpted gestures kept Beethoven's first three symphonies on a strong, though flexible rein. Brüggen was among the first authentic-instrument conductors to risk individualised interpretations of the early Romantic classics. His Beethoven symphony recordings breathe easily, but if you shift their broad outlines from the straw-filled cushion of authentic instruments to the modern orchestra's hard mattress, then the effect is entirely different. The Eroica was discomforted by a number of abrupt gear changes, the sort of thing we heard years ago as a matter of course and that, paradoxically, Brüggen fits more convincingly on to a period sound canvas. And yet the textural shift made for a flustered first movement, a Marcia funèbre prone to hurry and some unpalatable speeding in the finale. It was very frustrating: the laudable principle of making it sound new offset by a fine band, awkwardly employed.

But at least the Eroica was dramatic, which was more than could be said for the first two symphonies. On the plus side, Brüggen took all the repeats and seated his orchestra in the good, old-fashioned way, with divided violin desks, cellos on the right and basses on the left – great for stereophonic interplay, especially in the Second Symphony.

The First started promisingly. Winds and string choirs were admirably transparent, but as we ventured further the music started to stiffen, with no give to the phrasing, no obvious affection, just steady tempos and some deft playing. Best were the darting fiddles in the scherzo's trio, but the finale's witty, slow opening didn't crack even a suggestion of a smile. The limpid Brüggen of old was back on form for the Second Symphony's Largo, but early promise wasn't upheld and the last two movements were both relentless and impatient. I feel almost cruel writing this of a musician whose work I usually adore, but who on this occasion seemed compromised by frailty and tiredness.

Masur's stand-in for Saturday, Vernon Handley, served us Beethov-en beef after Brüggen's veggie buffet. What a contrast! First the baton-less Brüggen, all swaying arms and darting eyes, then the bandsman-like Handley, wielding a baton as long as a school-room cane. The Pastoral Symphony started shakily, but soon got into a workable stride, lusty and literal with well judged tempos but no first movement repeat. Like Brüggen, Handley divides his fiddles, but with so little time for preparation, it was inevitable that this would be an interpretation in progress, solid in principle but ultimately unsettled.

The Fifth was better by far, though the first movement's development section lacked tension. The turn-around occurred during the finale, with the repeat this time, and with a spiralling sense of urgency. Now, that was good. It has often been said that for non-British repertory, Handley is scandalously underused, and the finale of Beethoven's Five begged the question, why? So: memo to the LPO. Next time, make him part of the original grand plan, and then perhaps we really will see what we've been missing.