A concert of Viennese music from the Philharmonia Orchestra and Douglas Boyd, best-known as the fêted artistic director of Garsington Opera. Indeed it was in the theatre that we began, with the overture to Mozart's Figaro. The Philharmonia achieved a nice balance of modern-instrument warmth and weight alongside restrained use of their forces and deliciously rustic hard-headed sticks for the timpani.

Douglas Boyd © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Douglas Boyd
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

More ebullience would follow with Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major, performed by the perspicacious Jonathan Biss. The first movement downplayed some of the chromatic eccentricities in this sunny work, with rounded phrases handled gently by well-blended woodwinds and strings. Biss himself delivered meticulously accurate if cautious passagework, with suave phrasing and elegant paragraphing; his cadenza peered into the darker places of the work at which the development section hints, but still never lost the music’s poise.

The second movement was striking for its expressive woodwind solos, with more artful phrasing from Biss. The minor key interlude had a special lyrical fragility, tugging at the heartstrings unobtrusively. It is a movement with a major key main theme in which Biss found an incipient melancholy, leaning gracefully on its clashes. The orchestra opened up the translucency of Mozart’s orchestration in the final movement’s set of variations, a particular highlight between the dark shading of the minor key variation, along with Biss demonstrating particular brilliance in the penultimate variation. The horns led us into the comic race to the end, in a lolloping dance that would not have been out of place in the world of the opera that opened the concert.

The opening of Schubert’s “Great C major” Symphony was bold and decisive, striding with confidence, and bulked up forces on stage, into the Allegro. String playing was clipped and focused, giving excellent rhythmic and ensemble definition to the opening theme, with especially spry playing from the double basses; the woodwinds gave us a second subject that bounced on the balls of its feet. Agile and acute, for sure, but their nervous energy robbed the music of the mystery and strangeness of that side-stepping modulation into E minor. Dynamics were an issue: the rapid piano triplets Schubert demands of his woodwinds and horns at the recapitulation are cruel and unusual, but simply had to be softer, and the woodwinds often struggled to fall below mezzo piano. That being said, the return of the first theme was breathtakingly dynamic, and one of many thrilling moments in this perpetually animated performance.

All this sound and fury was part of the problem though, particularly in the second movement. There were real high points: a piquant oboe gleamed against shadowy, nervous cellos and basses in an atmospheric opening, and the great climax was a scream of existential despair, followed by abyssal silence. If the trudging opening of the Andante is redolent of Schubert’s later Winterreise, here the wanderer was stalwart and purposeful, defiantly Promethean even, than eerily inward and stumbling. (It is Andante con moto, true, but the character of that movement is more important perhaps than it simply being quicker.)

The Scherzo also rollicked along at quite a lick, with convincing rustic dancing was convincing. But again a brisk tempo, especially in the Trio, meant the ends of phrases felt rather squeezed and the florid elegance of the music never quite shone through. The woodwinds in the Scherzo had a deliciously Mahlerian kink, treading that line between joyfulness and archly raised eyebrow. Boyd's vivacity showed us Schubert's debt to Beethoven – Nine and also Seven – in this titanic movement.

The finale is fiendish, with slippery triplets for strings and woodwinds, and the movement's vast architecture demanding the power of an unfailing musical and rhythmic current. Boyd's performance was breathlessly exciting, and totally thrilling in its effects: strings always had bite and threw themselves fearlessly, totally cohesive, at their leaping arpeggios, emboldened by burnished brass (here I welcome the heft and depth of modern trombones and trumpets in this repertoire, as well as distinctly uncool doubled woodwinds). If anything they were a bit too competent: so thrilled were the strings with their near-flawless technical execution that there was a tendency to rush. Boyd and the Philharmonia were volcanic in their energy, but such enthusiasm got the better of the music. I yearned for a fraction more space between the opening's grand gestures, and longer pauses between the individual episodes to heighten the drama; the hypnotising repetitions in the harmonies needed room to breathe: it felt like the orchestra were being told to get on with it. The philosopher Adorno wrote of Schubert that "this is music we cannot decipher, but it holds up to our welling, fading eyes the secret of infinite reconciliation." A thrilling performance, but not one spotlighting the mysteries of this work.

***11