It is often said of British orchestras that their sound lacks the visceral, characterful edge of their colleagues on the continent. Lost underneath the technical perfection necessitated by a packed concert schedule are, we are told, commitment and passion for the music, as well as idiosyncrasies; where one can apparently tell Vienna from Berlin in a heartbeat, the LSO and LPO may as well be interchangeable. Well, the Philharmonia and Hannu Lintu – last-minute replacement for an ill Andris Nelsons – roundly dispelled this myth in the first concert of their Brahms cycle, with two first works: the youthful and impetuous First Piano Concerto with Hélène Grimaud, and the hard-won First Symphony. Despite the sudden change of personnel, the orchestra hung on every flamboyant flick of Lintu’s wrist, and a total unity of purpose was obvious throughout, with some of the most irresistibly luscious string playing I’ve ever heard from a British orchestra.

Hannu Lintu  ©  Kaapo Kamu
Hannu Lintu
© Kaapo Kamu

That the materials of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor were once candidates for a symphony is immediately obvious, not least in the lengthy orchestral introduction, and Grimaud’s dialogue with Lintu was always one that acknowledged the orchestra as an equal partner. To begin with, I was concerned by Lintu’s extravagant gestures, often bordering on the histrionic; definitely an apt term for Grimaud’s odd and distracting waist-up twirling during the entrance immediately before her own. However, a slightly lifeless opening from the Philharmonia was quickly forgotten with this very entrance, the menace of its quiet delicacy and lyricism realised in a great crescendo to the notoriously brutal and clangorous trills. Woken from its initial reverie, the orchestra responded with renewed energy, the strings now furiously marking Brahms’ harsh accents, now playing with the same ravishing sweep and warmth that Grimaud brought to the lyrical, quieter moments.

After the small initial hurdle, this was a tour de force of colour, symphonic and pianistic. Grimaud’s range of tone, from the delicate, celestial points of light in the slow movement to the most violent, ferocious shouting of the finale and first movement found a sympathetic ear in Lintu, whose passion for the oft-maligned orchestration of Brahms shone through. A tendency to make melody of what may seem mere accompaniment was a much-appreciated feature of Lintu’s reading, meaning there were moments throughout the concert where quirky instrumental combinations I had never noticed before came to the fore, and I very much enjoyed the Finn’s love for the heavy, rich basses of Brahms’ writing. A clear rapport between soloist and conductor extended to a shared vision of the youthful, hoch-Romantic world of this concerto; the Philharmonia responded impeccably to every emotional twist and turn, strings in the slow movement in particular achingly gorgeous.

So too with the symphony, which saw the orchestra in world-beating form, though some of Lintu’s interpretive preferences were slightly problematic without the tempering influence of a soloist. Imitating neither the overwhelmingly rich Karajan nor the HIP intensity of Gardiner and yet clearly indebted to both, this was highly characterful Brahms, particularly the frolicking of the third movement and the apotheosis of the finale. Lintu’s tendency to allow subsidiary lines great presence in the texture was occasionally misapplied when those “lines” are nothing but loud sustained notes in the brass, noticeable above all in the closing rush of the finale, when the trombones and trumpets were rather too raucous for the rest of the orchestra. In quiet music too, Brahms’ chromatically winding inner lines in wind and horns, beautiful though they are, could occasionally overwhelm a string section which deserved to be heard above all else.

For the strings of the Philharmonia were without doubt the standout group of the evening, always attentive to the necessary changes in tone and playing with the most gloriously Brahmsian, glowing sound even in quiet music. From the strident, seething morass of chromaticism at the imposing opening – grand rather than threatening under Lintu – it was obvious that the strings, with their perfectly pitched vibrato and irreproachable ensemble, were going to deliver, and deliver they did. In the slow movement, some of the most limpid, lustrous playing one could hope for in Brahms’s endless melodies brought the occasionally excessive orchestration to life.

All this resulted from a clear attention to and respect for leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, whose solos were the highlight of the whole symphony, even above outstanding contributions by principal horn Nigel Black and clarinettist Richard Hosford. Perhaps the only moment of weakness was a slightly disappointing rendition of the finale’s “big tune”, but even this was remedied to perfection the second time round, with some encouragement from Lintu. As fine a performance of this symphony as one could hope for, and an excellent start to the Philharmonia’s Brahms cycle, one which left me, happily, just wanting to hear more.

Philharmonia: Andris Nelsons - Brahms CycleGeorge Slater-Walker reviews Hannu Lintu, Hélène Grimaud and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Brahms First Piano Concerto in D Minor and First Symphony in C Minor at the Royal Festival Hall4