Philharmonia / Von Dohnanyi, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

The Philharmonia always outplays the opposition; it just sometimes loses on goals. Take the Symphony No 1 by Mahler with which Christoph von Dohnanyi ended Tuesday's pair of concerts.

The Philharmonia always outplays the opposition; it just sometimes loses on goals. Take the Symphony No 1 by Mahler with which Christoph von Dohnanyi ended Tuesday's pair of concerts.

This was a rousing match that in terms of detail and skill had everything going for it. From offstage trumpets placed well back from the choir-level doors, to up-in-the-air clarinets, wind instruments had an exactly judged balance and a biting tone that couldn't be bettered. Sweetly tuned violins and brusque lower brass topped and tailed the sound spectrum to perfection. Von Dohnanyi brought off a gathering urgency that kept tension thrillingly high through the finale's sequence of false arrivals.

Yet it never quite added up to the full Mahler experience, for reasons that at the time seemed positive. The dance movement had vigour and focus rather than Viennese lilt. The mock funeral march showed a light touch and a numbed end, with its street music improbably respectable. Lyrical contrasts in the finale were driven onwards, instead of expanding into radiance. And the muffed attempt by the horns to stand up at the climax unfortunately capped a performance that had great determination, but found only part of the range of extremes upon which Mahler's expressive world depends.

The best thing, in retrospect, was the quiet serenity of the opening minutes, like an echo of the character that had dominated the rest of the evening. The Classical Symphony by Prokofiev caught it immediately: lucid directness, and a pace that was forward-moving but calm, reflecting the music's mix of quick figuration and slow-changing harmony that recalls not so much the symphonies of Haydn that Prokofiev wanted to emulate, but the bitter-sweetness of Schubert. Placing first and second violins on opposite sides of the conductor worked particularly well in the first movement, where they are genuinely equal partners in taking the musical lead.

Steven Osborne was soloist in the first of the A major piano concertos from the astonishing run of works that Mozart wrote for himself to play at the height of his Viennese career. The composer would surely have appreciated Osborne's exquisite, unforced turns of phrase and the hushed atmosphere, though he might well have delivered the detail with more sparkle and energy. But this was a distinctive presentation, at its finest in the quiet gravity of the slow movement and all of a piece.

The free Music of Today concert focused for once on somebody who really is fresh, in years at least. Dai Fujikura, a Japanese composer who came to study here a dozen years ago, showed in three chamber-sized pieces a flair for instrumental colour, a personal sense of harmony, and a feeling for musical space and an ability to control a big range of movement in a short time. Let's hope he doesn't get carried away with the tricks that impress the composing mafia and propel him on to platforms such as this.

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