Royal Philharmonic / Daniele Gatti Barbican Centre, London

It looks as if conductor Daniele Gatti is set to grant the Royal Philharmonic what it most needs: personality. Gatti is the orchestra's music director designate (he assumes the full position as from September) and if last Thursday's Barbican concert is anything to go by, he should transform a worthy workhorse into a genuine class act. His manner is overtly histrionic: he'll set the initial tempo, make the first cues, stop gesticulating and then flick the odd phrase into life or quiver at a swingeing fortissimo. At first glance, his facial expressions (which include a wide repertory of screams and grimaces) seem over-theatrical and just a mite too photo- friendly, until you realise that the orchestra does actually translate them into sound and that the first movement of the Unfinished Symphony has a good deal more shape than when you last heard it live. And when you consider that the symphony was a last-minute substitution (for Beethoven's scene and aria "Ah! perfido"), then the orchestra's achievement seems doubly remarkable. The concert started with Schubert's Rosamunde overture, a keen, sprightly rendition, a little fuzzy in the strings department but with a beguiling account of the lyrical introduction.

After the interval, Mahler's Fourth confirmed the good news. Amanda Roocroft had been indisposed through illness and a fresh-voiced Inger Dam-Jensen took her place. Gatti's performance was extremely imaginative, though some of the first movement's tempo transitions were a trifle jerky. Leader Jonathan Carney brought an appropriate sense of devilment to his second- movement solos but the high-spot of the performance was a slow movement that opened to the quietest of pianissimos (violas and cellos excelling in their supple expressiveness) before edging skilfully from one episode to the next. This isn't so much a "slow movement" as an active narrative that just starts slowly, and Gatti realised the full measure of its fantasy. Criticisms? Only with respect to orchestral precision - the odd spot of untidiness here, the occasional intonation problem there; nothing too serious, just fading symptoms of executive shortcomings that are now largely remedied. Certainly the horns and strings sounded better than I'd heard them in years.

Tuesday's follow-up concert exhibited Gatti's penchant for dynamic extremes, first with Ravel's disarmingly delicate Mother Goose Suite then with Hindemith's heavily built Concert Music for Brass and Strings. Both showed the orchestra in its best light, the Ravel sporting cheeky characterisation and soft- textured string playing, the Hindemith, bold phrasing, resilient rhythms and bags of energy. Brahms's First Symphony followed, though here one sensed an interpretation in embryo - excitable, impulsive, but with whole stretches not yet in focus, rather like a slowly developing photograph. The Introduction was solid enough, but the first movement's main Allegro witnessed sundry exaggerations and the finale, although fitfully impressive (the horns were quite superb) failed to add up. Still, it was at least "a view" of the piece, and far rather that than a humdrum runthrough. Given a little less fist-shaking and a little more thought, the Gatti- RPO alliance could become something of a capital showpiece.

ROBERT COWAN

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