This Philharmonia Orchestra programme was a successful example of the tried and tested Overture-Concerto-Symphony format. Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture is frequently despatched with undue haste in a flurry of hyperactivity. Here it received a relaxed but beautifully focussed performance, affectionate but glowing and teeming with a notable inner life, the Philharmonia in its element and most responsive.
There followed a totally memorable performance of the Tchaikovsky, often a battle royal between soloist and orchestra. On this occasion the protagonists were equally matched, the Philharmonia – the all-important woodwinds superbly poetic and the strings, led by Laura Samuel, were especially lustrous. Alexander Gavrylyuk is a formidable pianist. Three things were immediately apparent. Firstly, however loudly he may play the sound never hardens. Secondly, the most extreme passages were despatched with thunderous power. Lastly, this power is allied to delicacy and musicality in the most heart-stopping way. There was an encore, well-chosen to lower the emotional temperature, the first section of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’.
Rafael Payare may not be the most obvious Sibelius conductor – he is perhaps too Latin for that, he has a tendency to push forward excitably – but what conviction and control. The first movement flowed with real forward momentum (it can sometimes drag) although the slow movement could have been taken a shade faster to its benefit but the intensity was self-evident. The Scherzo is marked Vivacissimo and Payare certainly delivered this; however, cannily he adopted a tempo which allowed the strings to articulate clearly but also avoided the need for the usual massive gear-change for the Trio. The tricky link into the Finale sorted the wood from the trees in a passage which all too frequently can sound a muddle whilst the movement’s glowing peroration built to a massive climax without any sense of strain or forcing. The Philharmonia was at its best.