I often think you can tell the quality of an orchestra by looking at the back desks of its string sections, and the players on the fringes of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic play with as much vigour as those at the front; their joy in the music is both visible and audible. The result is a strong and complex string sound, well blended, but with a coolness you don’t get from most German orchestras. The wind section is also impressive, above all for their unity of sound and blend.

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra © Jurek Holzer
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Jurek Holzer

Under Helmut Hänchen the orchestra played Haydn’s Symphony no. 95 in C minor with a great sense of style, balancing the pomp and poise of the first movement with ease. The second movement, a slow minuet, was sensitively phrased, with great care taken over the inner string parts, and a beautiful solo cello variation. The minuet proper had a dance-like lilt, with a well-judged tempo and wonderful 18th-century grandiosity. The trio, again featuring the orchestra’s excellent principal cellist, was a little clumsy at times, loosing the strong character established in the minuet. The virtuosity of the first violins really came to the fore in the finale, with excellent rocketing semiquavers, light and playful in spite of the technical demands. Though the neatness and style of the this performance were enviable, there was a blandness too. Haydn needs the purity and neatness that this orchestra brings, but what of the colours? The variety? The emotions?

In Britten’s Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of John Dowland, the clarity of the string sound was really breathtaking. It is perfect for this music, with its glassy chords, and viol-like postlude, where the theme on which the whole work is based is played unaltered for the first time. Tabea Zimmermann’s warm viola sound contrasted perfectly to this backdrop, and her virtuosity was well matched by that of the string orchestra, playing, as Britten requests, without the first violins. Sadly, Hänchen’s reading, though full of beautiful moments, misses the overall narrative of the music. There was little sense of the variations belonging to an overall musical thread, and the result was that some passages seemed like little more than linking material.

After the interval came Schubert’s monumental Ninth Symphony, often known as his “Great” C major symphony. At some 50 minutes, the work is very long for a symphony at the time, though Schumann is said to have praised it for its “heavenly length” and this expanded version of the traditional symphonic framework, as inherited from Mozart and Haydn, doesn’t at all outstay its welcome. Like the later symphonies of Beethoven, this is in many ways a late Classical symphony, rather than an early Romantic one, but Schubert exhibits this late Classicism in a thoroughly different way. Beethoven demolishes the house of Haydn and Mozart, but Schubert simply opens the door onto a world of new possibilities.

The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s sound really brings out this freshness in the Schubert, while retaining the music’s enlightenment sensibilities, linking the music to the traditions that came before it. Hänchen’s fast tempo for the first movement gives it the same lightness of spirit we had in the Haydn earlier, and the excellent players are more than equal to the challenges of this work in any tempo. However, the transition from the slow introduction into the main body of the symphony was messy, as were the transitions in the scherzo and trio. Schubert’s lyricism, the song composer never lost in the symphony, was also forgotten in the first movement, with the opening horn call not nearly as spacious and legato as it could have been. The second movement brought all the lyricism which the first movement lacked, helped by a faster than usual tempo and the excellent principal oboist. There was a great pastoral quality in the opening, contrasting with weight and uncertainty later in the movement. The Beethovenian bite of the scherzo combined with the fantastic wind solos of the trio provided one of the highlights of the performance, and the finale sparkled with virtuoso brilliance. Hänchen’s performance of the Schubert was monumental, with the big picture never lost and although sometimes the details weren’t as cared for as they perhaps should have been, this was an incredible performance from this virtuoso orchestra, playing Schubert in a more 18th- than 19th-century manner.

The appreciative audience got two encores, Britten’s “Playful Pizzacato” from his Simple Symphony and to finish a Schubert slow movement, both played with the utmost simplicity and both a joy to listen to.