It’s abnormal to open an orchestral review with the pianist’s encore. But this was no ordinary encore. Dedicated to his pianist friend Anna Guðný Guðmundsdóttir, who died of cancer this week, too young, Vikingur Ólafsson played his own transcription of Rameau’s The Arts and the Hours. Hunched over the piano, his face almost touching the keys, he produced music that was exquisite, intimate, sublime. It felt almost painful, as if we were intruding on private grief, but it was a touch of paradise.

Vikingur Ólafsson
© Mark Allan

Which made it all the more extraordinary that Ólafsson had just treated us to a superbly exuberant performance of Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? John Adams’ most recent piano concerto. Hearing this live for the second time, I’m convinced that it’s best to ignore the title and programme notes: this isn’t demonic, it doesn’t have particularly good tunes and it’s not a modern Totentanz. However, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. There’s plenty of Adams minimalism at its best, with insistent rhythmic figures and subtly shifting harmonies which get under your skin, together with a wide orchestral palette which constantly provides interesting surprises. Santtu-Mathias Rouvali did a fine job of keeping the Philharmonia tightly together in a piece where it must be easy to fall off the rails, and I took note of thrilling percussive effects from the double basses, who impressed throughout the evening. Ólafsson was nothing short of excellent. This was the best piano-orchestra balance I’ve heard at the Royal Festival Hall in years; he maintained rhythmic drive superbly and gave us a deliciously dreamy Debussy-like slow movement.

The Philharmonia Orchestra
© Mark Allan

The concert had opened with a (literal) bang from Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, a five minute burst of fun as exuberant as anything in the Adams, which put a smile on everyone’s face with its complex, joyous, glissando-filled overlapping string lines. I wasn’t convinced that the whole orchestra was 100% together, but this was so entertaining that I didn’t care.

And so to the meatier fare of the second half: Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor. In typical Mahler fashion, this uses a big orchestra, but seldom all at the same time, so individual instrumentalists are often exposed, with the chance to shine brightly (or, on a bad day, to embarrass themselves). The Philharmonia’s instrumentalists shone, with excellent timbre from woodwind and brass (trumpet lines like clarion calls, trombone solos beautifully shaped, airy flute phrases). Percussionists were on the nail, harp delicately poised. Strings were extremely together, clean and incisive. We were hearing more Nordic precision than Viennese warmth, but then a bit of extra bite isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this music.

Santtu-Mathias Rouvali and the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Mark Allan

Still, the whole symphony was less than the sum of its parts. As the piece continued, I found myself often losing the thread, enjoying many individual components but not gripped by a sense of where it was all going. On the podium, Rouvali was strangely restrained; as smiling and crisp in his movements as ever, but a fair way off the fireball of energy I’ve seen in the past. The pace of the first movement funeral march was extremely slow, which would have been OK but for the odd timing uncertainty to disrupt the forward progress. The second could have been more frantic. The third movement had the appropriate wit, but was neither very cheerful nor ironic. The big suspensions in the Adagietto were resolved tellingly, but without any massive sense of release; the finale was joyful, but never reached maximum ecstasy.

In all, a Mahler performance which showed many of the Philharmonia’s excellent qualities, but won’t go down as a reference.