At first sight the choice of programme and musicians for this pre-Beethoven Festival concert was a bit odd. Music by Verdi, Richard Strauss and Dvořák played by La Scala's Filarmonica, under the direction of Oxford-born Daniel Harding.

Daniel Harding © Barbara Frommann
Daniel Harding
© Barbara Frommann

The title of the evening – "La Scala on the Rhine" – gave a hint. The Milanese orchestra was on a short tour – to Bonn on Saturday and Dresden on Sunday. German audiences are in general very demanding of their orchestras and quite hard to rouse. Bonn aficionados are acutely aware of their city's heritage – Beethoven was born here. But they had paid their money, queued at the ticket office and taken their places, ready to listen to the programme as announced.

So the fact that Harding had the Beethovenhalle on its feet by the end is indication of how well the Filarmonica played. The dramatic, evocative nature of the music and its performance would probably have impressed Beethoven himself. Perhaps that is the legacy he created: appreciation of fine, dramatic music.

From the first six, stunning notes of Verdi's overture to La Forza del Destino through to the relaxed and appropriate final encore of Rossini's William Tell overture, the evening was the essence of drama within a classical structure which Beethoven would have recognised as characteristic of his own work.

Daniel Harding cites one of his skills as having the power to bring orchestras to the exact point that he has in his head. From the opening brass exclamations in Verdi's overture and the lyrical, warm response from the strings, we had all of the drama which the opera itself contains.

Perhaps it was because Verdi took his time to write the full-scale overture to La Forza that the work can stand alone on a concert stage. For the opera's 1861 première in St. Petersburg, there was just a a modest prelude. It was only when Verdi reworked the opera in 1869 that this magnificent overture was added. It has in essence all the elements which come in the opera itself – the emotive "destiny" motif and Leonora's dramatic prayer. When prepared and rehearsed as it was under Harding's direction, it is a hard act to follow.

In the programme Richard Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder ("Four Last Songs") came next. German soprano Christine Schäfer tackled the task bravely. Evidently the long German phrases were no challenge to her. She is known for the accuracy of her singing. The songs themselves are associated with the last days of Strauss' life, and his soon-to-follow death. But they are not gloomy. Instead, they represent a totality of his achievements in Lieder, which he had been writing all his life. They offer the soprano and orchestra an opportunity to soar. Unfortunately, Schäfer was a little underwhelming.

After the interval, the orchestra turned its attention to musical matters at a cheerier time of the composer's life. Dvořák's Symphony no. 8 has the Bohemian folk music themes and lively melodies which are the hallmark of his music. He was the first major composer since Haydn to write a symphony in G major – usually appropriate for folk music and song. Beethoven himself would have recognised the classical model he used to structure the symphony.

Again we were treated to an intelligent, informed, practised and genuine interpretation of the score. The cellos were well up to the task of introducing and repeating the long, lyrical melody. For all its folklore and childlike songs, this is an elaborate composition. While it is a symphony in G major, the early bars are in G minor, before the flute enters with a child-like melody in G major. For a large, operatic orchestra to play with this delicacy and balance is impressive.

The Adagio moved delicately along, taking the mood from cheery to sombre with echoes of Beethoven's slow movement in his Eroica symphony being respectfully acknowledged. The clarinet duet was pleasant and smooth.

The Scherzo, with its descending lines, showed the balance of the orchestra to great effect. There is dramatic contrast throughout the movement and the strings in particular were at the heart of allowing the mood to move.

The trumpet fanfare which starts the final movement was a reminder than Harding himself studied the instrument as a boy at Chetham's School of Music and knows how a trumpet should sound. The explosion of instruments which introduces the finale can be overwhelming in terms of sound, but Harding allowed the music to rise and fall as it should and he had a superb string section to achieve the effect. He created the opportunity for the flute solo to excel, before the brass and timpani finished it all off in a splendid celebration.

So, just to finish with the original query – why this programme to preview a Beethoven festival? While Dvořák pays his respects to Beethoven in his composition, there are not many obvious links with Strauss, apart from their shared German heritage. With Verdi, even less. Perhaps it was just an opportunity to bring an excellent orchestra with an engaging programme to entertain?

In any event, the Bonn audience was impressed. Harding was called back on stage relentlessly. The final encore – Rossini's William Tell overture – was a masterstroke of programming, and fun. The standing ovation was merited. If the rest of the Beethoven Festival in the autumn is up to this standard, then Bonn is the place to be!

***11