Philharmonia / Mackerras, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

When the Philharmonia landed Sir Charles Mackerras as their principal guest, they made a better catch than most British orchestras have for their chief conductors. His vigour, clarity and sweep, underpinned by enthusiastic and profound knowledge, are legendary, and they have got better with age.

When the Philharmonia landed Sir Charles Mackerras as their principal guest, they made a better catch than most British orchestras have for their chief conductors. His vigour, clarity and sweep, underpinned by enthusiastic and profound knowledge, are legendary, and they have got better with age.

The formal relationship followed on from some galvanising emergency Beethoven, delivered when Wolfgang Sawallisch had to drop out of a symphony cycle, and has settled in time for this year's anniversaries of Dvorak and Janacek, two of Mackerras' specialities, which he is also marking with the Czech, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. Next year there is an 80th birthday to celebrate. Talk about timing it right.

His London Czech concerts began with Janacek's Taras Bulba. You'd expect a rousing experience, but even for this line-up the performance was exceptional. Half the battle with Janacek is just to get the notes and balance right. Violins were sweetly together, the layers of woodwind vivid, including some that usually stay buried. But then they were welded into a vision of power and grandeur. So much drama in 20 minutes - whatever do you play next?

The Brahms Violin Concerto was their choice, and it initially felt like a mistake, because not only the audience appeared punch-drunk. Joshua Bell's solo playing is a byword for responsiveness and authority, but the first ten minutes were full of untypical exaggerated contrasts, with too much focus on detail and a prevailing slow tempo. Mackerras conducted with what must have been self-effacing loyalty, because it was not a bit like his Brahms symphony performances.

He eventually imposed a wake-up call as the orchestra pressed on towards the solo cadenza, and this had its effect on Bell, who was playing his own version, composed with intelligence and flair. From then on things were as they should be, with a fine oboe solo that had Bell turning round in apparent admiration and then delivering an equally poised reply before moving on just the right amount in the two big episodes of passion. The finale too was bursting with spirit that on another occasion might have been there from the start.

No problems about following with the Sixth Symphony of Dvorak. The piece is hardly ever programmed, but that is only because Dvorak wrote three overwhelmingly popular symphonies afterwards and this doesn't get a look in. But it starts with what is one of his greatest symphonic movements.

Great moments abounded, and there were some unstoppably exciting build-ups. Bar the scramble in the last seconds, it had all been driven by a precise rhythm, brilliantly embodied in the timpanist's offbeat accents which would have had the audience on their feet, if only they knew how to dance a furiant.

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