Last Sunday afternoon saw the second in Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia’s duo of concerts given in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. Prior to the concert, I found the grouping of Strauss, Mozart and Mussorgsky a puzzling choice, and there was little explanation in the programme as to how the latter two bore much relevance to the Strauss-themed festivities. Needless to say, the addition of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition ensured an almost sold-out Royal Festival Hall. The concert did at least open with Strauss, the fifth of his ten tone poems Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Whilst Strauss might have quipped that he was “not a first-rate composer but a first-class second-rate composer”, the tone poems anticipate the powerful skills of orchestration that he would put to such great effect in the later operas.

The Philharmonia took every opportunity to relish the characterful score, one of the most sparkling that Strauss every composed. The familiar first “Till” theme was perfectly pitched by the first horn and was played with suitable gusto as it passed through the orchestra. A good sense of balance was achieved, with first woodwind, then brass, then percussion allowed to dominate and shine through when the score called for it. It was inspiring to see Lorin Maazel, now in his 80s but still a giant of the classical world, conducting this complex score from memory, never missing an accent or a lead.

With such an exciting and accomplished opening, it was a shame that most of the orchestra then disappeared for the second piece. Despite perhaps not posing as many technical challenges, Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3, was the hardest piece of the concert to pull off. It is can be challenging to really make Mozart come alive in a large concert hall, where there are no electrifying moments of full orchestra playing fortissimo to fall back on.

Whilst violinist Esther Ho achieved a good deal of clarity, there was a distinct lack of characterization in both the solo and orchestral lines. It is the phrasing that makes Mozart’s perfectly constructed lines come to life, and this interpretation tended towards the pedestrian. It didn’t help that the first movement was taken at such a reserved pace, preventing the listener from being drawn into the work. The second movement was played elegantly, but its impact was negated after a less than energetic first movement. The performance came to life in the final movement, one of Mozart’s most delightful rondos, but by this time it was too late to make much of an impact. Composed in 1775, when Mozart was 19, it is frequently heralded as one of the pieces that mark his development as a composer and foreshadow the profundity that is to follow. It was, therefore, a shame it was played in such a routine fashion.

The sizeable orchestra returned for the final piece, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Despite its place in Strauss’ anniversary celebrations not being made clear, it is impossible to complain when it was played with such finesse as here. Once again, Lorin Maazel, conducting from memory, controlled the orchestra perfectly throughout. The inventiveness of Ravel’s orchestration was brought to the fore, making the piece come across as a real orchestral tour de force. Whilst some (notably Leopold Stokowski) have taken umbrage with Ravel’s treatment of this 19th century Russian masterpiece, the Philharmonia made an incredibly strong case for it. The glossy and rich orchestration, coupled with Mussorgsky’s unquestionably Russian motifs, makes for an unusual but exhilarating combination. “The Great Gate of Kiev” finale is always rousing, but as the tubular bells and brass sang out, I felt that this had been a particularly special rendition. The audience burst into rapturous applause and cheers, the majority granting a standing ovation. It was an honour to see Maazel conduct, and the respect the orchestra and audience felt for him was palpable throughout. Despite my reservations about the programming, this concert reached an unforgettable climax.