Philharmonia / Muti, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Only last year, opera-fanciers were suggesting Riccardo Muti would be "not welcome" in London after he refused to conduct a production that Covent Garden had altered against his wishes.

Only last year, opera-fanciers were suggesting Riccardo Muti would be "not welcome" in London after he refused to conduct a production that Covent Garden had altered against his wishes. Orchestra followers, it seems, have longer and more generous memories. As the senior past principal conductor of the Philharmonia, Muti was the orchestra's choice for its 60th anniversary concert last week. Warmly greeted, his presence was a reminder that he had presided over the second of the Philharmonia's three great periods in its life so far, and also that this has always been the most Continental of the London orchestras in both outlook and style.

It had been set up to put London at the centre of Europe's post-war record industry, and for two decades it had no equal in the city. But the third great period? It's happening now, thanks partly to the current principal conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi, and partly to stable management - David Whelton has taken a lower-profiled but musically radical line to create a genuine alternative to the London Symphony Orchestra, polished, consistent and rooted where its rival is brilliant and unpredictable.

Happily, the music-making on the night was worthy of the occasion. Two central but un-grandiose works from the Austro-German classical tradition had beautifully prepared, subtle performances. Even the orchestra itself had to wait until after the interval to have the stage to itself, because the first half was given over to Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Vadim Repin as soloist.

This was a fabulous display of violin-playing. While the cadenza contained marvels of articulation, they occurred as though they were as natural as breathing, and the defining feature of the performance was the endless expressive lights that Repin could cast on apparently simple themes without having to impose extraneous "character". The slow movement lingered, yet the reflective mood remained concentrated, and when flamboyance finally emerged it took on a character of joy rather than vanity.

From Muti's time in charge of the Philharmonic, memories are dominated by high drama and intensity. But his conducting has evolved, and his platform manner has grown deft and sometimes laconic. In Schubert's Symphony No 9, he sometimes gave no beat at all, all the better to convey light-fingered reminders of a productive rehearsal period.

You would scarcely have guessed that this is one of the hardest repertoire pieces to balance between the orchestral sections. Yet all the details that make Schubert sound so distinctive, a touch of trumpet here or a trombone holding the middle of a harmony, were perfectly in place. As a result the symphony swept along with ease, its crises if anything underplayed, but the music still given space to recover from them with a Schubertian touch of wistfulness.

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