The snare drum’s startling roll unleashed a joyful performance of Rossini's overture to The Thieving Magpie , full of wit, elegance and energy, displaying the orchestra on good form, the contribution of the woodwinds and horns particularly attractive. We were off to a good start!

Gerd Schaller © Cella Seven
Gerd Schaller
© Cella Seven

In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, the soloist's modest opening phrase sets the tone, and on this occasion Andrei Licaret presented it firmly, almost prosaically – clarity and precision rather than poetry seemed at that stage to be his aim. The orchestra's response was, however, infused with a wistful melancholy: this made for an interesting interaction, as though the orchestra was encouraging the soloist to a more searching exploration of the music. But increasingly the soloist allowed himself some expressive inflections of tempo and dynamics, all the more eloquent for the economy with which they were applied. His interpretation gained in both subtlety and strength as it progressed, crowned with a commanding performance of Beethoven’s cadenza (the first of the two Beethoven wrote for this movement), so by the second movement he had earned himself the authority to give the gentle, meditative response to the orchestra’s stern opening admonition. Just as it should be, come the end of this movement, soloist and orchestra were speaking with one voice, and embarked on the rondo finale with warm-hearted vitality. Licaret proved himself capable not merely of impressive virtuosity, but of a thoughtful and imaginative interpretation of this wonderful work. And as if that were not enough, his encore, that I thought was obviously Schubert, proved to be an improvisation on a composition of his own!

The interval took us from two of the most well-known works in the Romantic repertoire to one hardly ever played. Bruckner himself labelled his Symphony in F minor as just ''school-work'' and perhaps that has contributed to the fact that it is so rarely performed. He was in his late thirties when he wrote it, so no schoolboy. One might hear in it the influence of Schumann and Mendelssohn, possibly even Wagner to whose music Bruckner had just been introduced. But the symphony must have a performance that takes it on its own terms and Gerd Schaller did exactly this: the Philharmonie Festiva played the symphony for all it was worth, which turned out to be much more than the composer’s estimation.

You could hear in every phrase that they were taking the music seriously. The work has some wonderful solos, not just the lovely oboe solos at the end of the first movement exposition and the slow movement second theme, but also the flute and clarinet in the first movement second theme, and many other moments where the woodwind are highlighted, and a lovely cello solo following the oboe in the first movement – all of these were so beautifully played with full expressive nuance. They contributed strongly to the performance of this work as a symphony of some depth, with something of significance to say, uniquely its own, way beyond mere homework for the composer’s teacher, the conductor Otto Kitzler, who marked it down as 'uninspired'.

Gerd Schaller was obviously the source of the respect with which the orchestra treated the work, and he moulded a performance that never for a moment had you thinking this was uninspired music, written just as an exercise. Indeed, his seriousness of purpose was given dramatic demonstration after the first movement when he turned and addressed the audience, that they might cease the unmuffled coughing that had disfigured much of the Beethoven and was now attacking Bruckner – and lo, suddenly the indisposed were miraculously cured, able in quietness to receive the gift this music has to offer. They didn't have to wait long: the orchestra played the Andante with tender nobility, the Philharmonie Festiva strings able to conjure up an early glimpse of that spiritual dimension for which Bruckner is noted in his later works. The theme is interspersed with dramatic drum rolls and minor chords, and later a whole minor key section with strident forte gestures from strings, a semiquaver off beat. Later there was a gloriously played bassoon solo, and the movement wound to a close with plangent strings ornamented by scale passages on clarinet and flute, a repeated horn call to finish. It really was something special.

It is primarily in the Scherzo that one recognises the prototype of the later Bruckner, a short strongly accented rhythmic motive thumping along, crescendos to several loud cadences. The trio is an attractive but enigmatic little piece, primarily for windband with a delicate staccato string accompaniment. This was all very effectively done.

Most commentators regard the finale as the symphony’s weakest movement, but this performance demonstrated that there is plenty enough in the movement for it to adequately serve its function as a lively and energetic finale. Maybe the development is a bit cursory, but after some busy work in the strings and sustained chords in brass and woodwind, the movement closes exuberantly with the rousing repetition of its opening horn motive.

School-work? Well, some performances may treat it that way, but Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva gave the music the chance to transcend that humble designation, and so it became a little musical miracle.