Philharmonia/Zinman | Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Of all London's orchestras, the LSO had the best winter, and for spring the baton has passed to the Philharmonia. Tuesday saw two more exceptionally interesting guest performers. Both the conductor David Zinman and the violinist Vadim Repin are underexposed in Britain despite their international reputations. They had familiar repertoire to play, but treated it with a rare degree of consideration.

Then again, the Brahms symphonies don't turn up as often as they used to. Everybody seemed to be responding freshly to No 2, from the plentiful wind soloists to the group of trombones that makes mysterious quiet appearances at many of the work's turning points (as well as the famous loud ones).

Zinman conducted with a fine fusion of ear, brain and heart and an unusual freedom from look-at-me gestures. His performances go to the core of the music rather than live on the edge. Each movement went at a tempo that seemed too slow at first, but soon proved to be exactly the one that let a singing line hold the music together and escape from the clumsy violin scrambles and Formula One braking that are often inflicted on Brahms's orchestral music. He even managed to make the finale end thrillingly without the traditional kick on the accelerator, by using more subtle wiles of internal balance, rhythmic vigour and steadily growing intensity.

Repin, too, is an intense rather than a spectacular musician. He takes a straightforward lyrical line but his tone is urgent and vibrant; the compressed energy of his playing eventually breaks out in focused, propulsive quick music rather than overheated effusions. This suited the Bruch Concerto No 1, where the big climaxes are left to the orchestra.

The "Pre-Concert Event" was in fact another concert, part of the Philharmonia's "Music of Today" series. Not that the title is accurate, because it's definitely music of last century, even from the very young Stuart MacRae, whose pieces were being given clearly prepared presentations with Martyn Brabbins conducting. You can hardly blame an ambitious composer of 20 for following, in The Witch's Kiss, models favoured by the generation who currently pull the strings. The second of the pieces, the subdued, brooding Portrait, though written only two years later, showed a major advance in focus and confidence, with better shaped and more resourcefully sustained ideas. Still, this music has yet to develop full-hearted and vigorous expression of its own, and the event, while absorbing, had more of the character of a workshop than of a public performance.