The retirement age for conductors seems to be something in excess of 90. At 87, Christoph von Dohnányi is heading in that direction, but sadly, he was unable to conduct this perfectly formed programme at the last minute because of ill health. Stepping into the breach was a less known conductor, Enrique Mazzola, whose specialism is bel canto opera, but who is apparently adding symphonic material to his repertoire. While the audience must have been disappointed not to see Dohnányi, they were still treated to a delightful evening of excellent music making.

Enrique Mazzola © Eric Garault
Enrique Mazzola
© Eric Garault
Mendelsohn’s overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), once a staple of the concert hall, has been surprisingly neglected in recent years and it was a delight it to hear it played with such purity of tone and poise. It is one of a handful of works by Mendelssohn, including the Octet, the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and the Violin Concerto, that stand above the rest of his output and give the impression of being perfectly formed. The sea journey here was not lean and edgy, as in more period instrument oriented performances but, with a large string section to cushion the overall sound, this was sightseeing in comfort.

Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor K466 also followed a peaceful and subtle path, with soloist Till Fellner in poised form, avoiding the temptation to push the work into the Romantic era. The minor key angst was very much presented in a classically balanced context. There have been more urgent performances of the opening Allegro, but instead Fellner offered up a polished, subtle account, with tip top interactions with a superbly alert Philharmonia. Evidently Mazzola’s experience in opera helped to foster this sense of intimacy. The Romanza followed the same path, with a wonderfully sunny sense of line in the melodic outer sections and some serious clouds at its centre. In the finale, the virtuoso writing brought out a steeliness and wit in Fellner that was wholly appropriate. The sheer wonders of this movement, with its wide variety of all gold thematic material and shifting moods, was effortlessly captured here and the sense of arrival at its D major close was deeply satisfying.

And the final performance also produced a satisfying and invigorating experience, this time in C major. Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 is a work, like all four of the symphonies, that has not been recognised as the important creation that it is until the last 20 years or so. Sandwiched between Beethoven and Brahms, Schumann’s orchestral music was much criticised for its thick orchestration, and indeed, Mahler did a touch-up job with all four symphonies in the 1890s, succeeding in stripping them of all their individuality. Schumann was also not felt to have the gravitas of those other great symphonists. It’s only in more recent years, as orchestras have been playing the works more regularly, that conductors are beginning to understand how to manage balance issues in the orchestration and to appreciate that it is not wrong, just different.

The Second Symphony was also the least admired of the set: being less fanciful and more seriously symphonic, its riches lay unrecognised. However conductors like Bernstein and Sinopoli, through glorious recordings, started the process of recognition, which has resulted in it being now the most programmed of the set.

Under a very steady hand from Mazzola, the Philharmonia produced a sumptuous performance which did full justice to the work. Every department glowed, but particularly the large string section that shone in the tricky passage work and were gloriously rich when needed. The heroic first movement emerges from a long and shadowy slow introduction, the only real indication of the nervous breakdown the composer was recovering from. It was beautifully shaped, leading to the coda which was resplendent with brass. The infectious Scherzo was articulate and rhythmically spot on, the final Presto flourish a joy. However it was the Adagio that stole the show. Surely one of the great romantic slow movements, its full glory was uncovered here, largely because the tempi were just right. This allowed the moment of opening out of the texture into a glorious string tune to unfold ravishingly, only to be repeated even more strongly at the end of the movement. A fastish tempo in the finale created the sense of excitement and was rounded off by the stately coda that unzips all the orchestra in a grandiloquent C major close.