It is not often that we see Philippe Herreweghe in London, especially conducting a modern orchestra such as the Philharmonia, programming non-sacred music. Yet the possible notion that the experienced conductor may be stepping outside of his comfort zone is disputable, considering that he is a regular at the likes of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, where he directs works afar from his reputation as those of Kurt Weill and Johann Strauss II. If anything, that the Philharmonia have secured another future collaboration with Herreweghe in November only ripens expectations of an Indian summer of the Flemish conductor in London.

Philippe Herreweghe © Michael Hendryckx
Philippe Herreweghe
© Michael Hendryckx

Still, there is only so much space for speculations facing the actual occasion. From the first statement of the Ouverture of Bach’s third Orchestral Suite, a movement described by Goethe as "a procession of elegantly dressed people proceeding down a great staircase", back up to the Olympian peaks ascended in the Finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, the Philharmonia explored the depths of Herreweghe’s unique music making. Immediately recognisable was the general briskness adopted in all works. Yet smooth gentleness via vibrato-less strings and well integrated hard-stick timpani was the overall conception. The elimination of any hard edge also meant the tempo choice rarely precluded a sense of repose. Other seeming dichotomies, too, became questionable, such as orchestral control and expressivity, and effortlessness and confidence.

There were peculiarities, some which worked better than others. The way the five double basses drove a telling presence, for example, as if signalling the incipience of a new culture of Bach conducting, worked well in the service of providing assuredness and volume under the rest of the orchestra’s silk. On the other hand, the dances from the Orchestral Suite could have shed some of their elegance for a different ilk of novelty. And as balanced as the orchestral unity was, the oboes in the Bach were often meek next to their neighbouring forces. In a similar vein, while the Royal Festival Hall debutant Bertrand Chamayou’s efforts in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major were honest to the beauties of the written score, he was at times overshadowed by the sheer orchestral scintillation around him. Yet Chamayou’s consistency of tone had its charms, providing much promise for future engagements.

It is hard to believe that Mozart's Symphony no. 41 in C major, with most of its repeats included, took a mere half an hour to reach its ultimate jubilation. Yet this is what exceptional conducting does. Objective time succumbs to the recognition of a musical journey, and one experiences a heavenly length of awe and admiration. Where the Andante cantabile exuded melancholy, every repeat of the Menuetto was filled with organic flow. The blistering finale was exalted and perfected without a moment of technical lapse. Herreweghe’s lifelong artistry of concentration, clarity and intimacy was never better demonstrated thorough the evening than in this symphony. While it is regrettable that performances as idiomatic and exciting as Herreweghe’s don’t happen more often, one also secretly knows that if they were to happen too often, one would forget how truly remarkable performances sound.