REVIEW / Mixed fibres: Anthony Payne on Haydn's place

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The Independent Culture
As many of our large symphony orchestras have more or less abandoned the music of the late 18th century to specialist early music ensembles, they have left themselves without a prime source of contrast in the building of concert programmes. At the Festival Hall on Thursday, the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen gave a lively reminder with Haydn's Symphony No 53 of the counterbalance that composer can provide in programmes of radical 20th-century music.

The intellectual sinew that characterises Haydn's symphonic thought; the speculative genius, which is never clouded by personalised feeling although far from lacking in emotional fibre, seemed perfectly to counterpoint the invention found in Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, the work that followed on this occasion. There can be few composers of substance that Haydn does not relate to in one way or another, such is the structural and emotional range of his achievement. Although perhaps not the evening's finest, the performance of the symphony proved time and again the sheer vitality of Haydn's thought processes. All was treated with fresh vigour, and if one or two corners were rather uneasily negotiated, there was always that feeling of sentiment without sentimentality which characterises Haydn's genius.

The Schoenberg concerto was magnificently performed in all respects. For all the tonal allusions of its 12-note workings and the neo-Romantic rhythmic configurations, this is a work of the most complex dialectic, music of an intellectual and emotional maturity to put to shame much that passes these days for new or radical. Committed Schoenbergians have been known to balk at its neo-classic outlines, but when it is characterised as intensely as it was here, with Alfred Brendel a magisterial soloist committed to every small nuance and Salonen commanding its swiftly changing perspectives and concentrated syntax, listeners are swept along by its passionate discourse.

The performance of Stravinsky's Petrushka achieved brilliance in instrumental virtuosity - wonderfully characterised solo contributions, tuttis of sizzling clarity and attack - and generated an unbroken structural tension. This was above all an interpretation of warmth and humanity, and it reached its expressive peak with the extraordinary ambiguities of the closing pages where Stravinsky's puppet hero proved to be a living being after all, thumbing his nose at the audience. The combination of sudden tenderness and savage gesture was unforgettably caught, and the whole interpretation possessed vivid theatrical life.