Who would you want to put in the grand pantheon of British music? Composers? Unquestionably. Soloists? Undoubtedly. And then there’s a certain Sir Thomas Beecham, whose contribution to British musical life is unparalleled. He founded two of London’s great orchestras as well as having a lustful eye on a third. Not the least of his attributes was a roguish charm that gave voice to a plethora of anecdotes and bon mots which continue to delight us today. Would he be looking down from on high and giving a wry smile of recognition towards the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who were celebrating their 70th birthday in style? You bet he would!

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

Yet, given the need and desire to mark the occasion in an appropriate way, the choice of programme can’t have been easy. One work probably suggested itself automatically, the very first work the RPO ever played and coincidentally a suitable nod towards their current music director’s Swiss homeland as well as being one of Tommy’s own lollipops: the William Tell Overture. With eloquent playing from the principal cello and his four section colleagues at the start, together with Charles Dutoit’s fine pacing of the dramatic and pastoral episodes, this made a sparkling curtain-raiser.

Two of the other composers represented in this concert shared a dislike of being closely associated with works that audiences were to take to with an affection bordering on adulation. Bruch was irked at being called a one-trick pony, so much so that in a satirical note he penned long after the first performance of his G minor violin concerto in 1866 he stated: “We make it known, for the relief of anguished souls, that we hereby seriously ban the said concerto.” Stravinsky in later life came to regard his Firebird as a tiresome embarrassment, providing as it did a grand musical tour of Russian musical history – echoes of Glinka, Borodin and Scriabin are unmistakeable – in the 19th century and indulging all the fairy tale clichés beloved of his erstwhile compatriots.

It was a fitting tribute to Pinchas Zukerman, the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, that he directed his own performance of Bruch’s “hall of fame” concerto. Inevitably, there were occasional tiny issues of ensemble when the soloist resorted to using wide arcs of his bow to cue in sections and indicate phrasing, but his players produced warm and committed support in what was an unashamedly romantic view of a Romantic work. How welcome too was the almost legerdemain segue from the first movement into the generously beating heart of the Adagio which in turn opened up seamlessly into the bright sunlit uplands of the finale.

Dutoit, himself on the cusp of becoming an octogenarian and celebrating 50 years of association with the RPO, is an ideal interpreter of one of Stravinsky’s most colourful scores, the five movements that make up his 1919 Firebird suite. His instinctive ear for orchestral balance and individual moments of refinement yielded magical playing from all departments. Many details linger in the memory: the creamy-rich wind solos with feathers all-a-flutter in the opening dance, a ferocious bass drum in the “Infernal Dance” signalling an impressive display of collective virtuosity, exquisitely hushed strings with mournful bassoon and oboe in the “Berceuse” and, best of all, the richly evocative sounds conjured up in “The Princesses’ Khorovod”. Here, as elsewhere, the plumage was all puffed up and resplendent.

It is rare to be blessed in a concert with not just one but two world-class instrumental soloists. Given that her association with Dutoit stretches back some way, Martha Argerich could not have wished for a more sympathetic accompanist in the Schumann A minor concerto, where the unity of approach was immediately obvious in the opening pages. This was dreamland and a journey into the inner senses, the soloist merely caressing the keys in order to float Schumann’s melodic lines. Argerich has no need to make statements at the keyboard or pick out incidental details with a “Look at what I’ve found” flourish. Her musicianship is special in the way it never draws attention to itself; nothing is exaggerated and nothing is understated. When the moment came to unleash the fireworks, as she did in the cadenza, the power was cumulative, with cascades of perfectly wrought notes. This performance was ultimately so satisfying because in the quasi-nocturne of the first movement, where the solo clarinet has an important role to play, as well as in the intermezzo (the last of the three movements to be composed), the dialogues between soloist and orchestra were managed with impeccable manners. Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15, no 1 was the sole encore.

Right at the end there were no orchestral lollipops. Not even one. But then we’d already had quite a generous evening of music-making.