Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall, London

Who said romance is dead?
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The Independent Culture

First Kurt Masur, now Wolfgang Sawallisch: two ultra-trad Beethoven cycles have been subverted by their conductor's illness. Has fate turned music critic? What made the South Bank plan two bites at the symphonies so close in time, let alone in concept, is worth questioning.

The Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic are supposed to be joint residents. The latter at least managed a coup when it found Sir Charles Mackerras to take over for the first three symphonies. Admiring Mackerras's conducting is almost synonymous with being musical, and his Beethoven recordings from Liverpool have met much praise. Here was a chance for London to experience the evidence live.

Very live it was, too. Mackerras and Sawallisch are both in their mid-seventies but their attitudes are quite different. Everything was there at the outset in Beethoven's second Leonore overture. Rather than received tradition and best practice, the approach comes from acquired knowledge, personal practical experience and imaginative, lateral thinking. To the ear that means a mix of period-style influence and Romantic awareness: no original instruments but visible signs include a row of basses across the back, violins left and right, hard timpani sticks.

The message was rhythmic vitality and definition, with a strong profile for the woodwind as well as the bass-line, coupled with lean and vigorous string tone. Already in this concise, "first-draft" piece the playing had a sound of its own. Speeds were taut but never rigid, letting the music breathe without disrupting its momentum.

A magnificent "Eroica" in the second concert could have been the highlight of an entire season, but the real revelations came in the first two symphonies. Mackerras swapped their order in the programme, giving No 1 the second half to itself as though to say this was the work of weight. Then he as near as contradicted himself by getting No 2 played with brilliance, irresistible momentum and at times, as with the two moments in the Larghetto that anticipate the end of the "Pastoral", an upsurge of intensity. Details were constantly alive and subtly ear-catching. Violins at one time played in a flurry rather than a fully articulated scale, the music of a young man in a rush, and at another enjoyed themselves in witty interplay between the sections. Repeats differed in tiny, cumulative ways such as the pattern of timpani attacks.

No 1 offered the same virtues, with fire, spot-on accents and relish among the woodwind at speed. Moving on to the "Eroica", the quick movements stayed fast, fleet and now too furious to be light, the Scherzo, a superb realisation with its quiet animation, impatient accents and inner horn detail, while the Funeral March took on gravity in its steady rise and fall from and back to half-voiced violin tone. But It was not the extremes of power that Michael Tilson Thomas achieved earlier in the season with the London Symphony Orchestra.

If this wasn't enough, the "Eroica" followed Murray Perahia's visit to play the Piano Concerto No 1 in close agreement. Would Mackerras have been as Romantic on his own in the slow movement, or Perahia as biting? You couldn't tell. The musicianship just struck sparks as Perahia's sharply etched, dynamic playing grew in vigour and flair until it peaked in spectacular cadenzas making full use of a Steinway that the music was never meant for but sounded utterly itself on.