Philippe Herreweghe the pioneer has been circling in the upper echelons of period performances for some time, brandishing a penchant for sacred choral music and a particular affinity for Bach. But Herreweghe the conductor actually time-travels quite a bit, flitting backwards and forwards in time, dipping in and out of different musical eras and, curious though it may seem to devotees of his famed historically-informed performances, even making occasional forays into the 20th century. On this occasion, in one of his rare but welcome visits to London, he wound the clock back again, not quite as far as Bach, but to that rich vein of Classical-Romantic repertoire, applying his considerable historical nous to some middle-period Beethoven and unashamedly Mozartian Schubert.

Thomas Zehetmair © Julien Mignot
Thomas Zehetmair
© Julien Mignot

With the pared-down Philharmonia Orchestra suitably reconfigured – double-basses positioned at the back behind the woodwinds and brass, and cellos in the middle next to the violas – Herreweghe’s desire to enhance the natural balance of the orchestra was all set. Relaxed and casual, he wandered onto the podium with an amiable demeanour, then struck suddenly with jagged hands to announce the opening of Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. This brief overture, displaying Beethoven’s lighter side, contained all the code for Herreweghe’s performance approach - precision, a meticulous eye for detail, flexible phrasing and balance. And the orchestra responded attentively, producing a freshness in its playing and a lightness of touch, even in gritty passages.

The opening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto had a striking intimacy, setting the scene for the soloist’s entry, before gradually gaining momentum and swelling into noble grandeur. Thomas Zehetmair gave a ruminative interpretation, different from others, with an overriding serenity about his playing and the most exquisite feathery textures, particularly in the upper registers. Intonation was not perfect and the overall performance was a little ragged around the edges, but the phrasing was carefully constructed and had a natural flow, generous rubato at times but not overdone. Herreweghe’s thoughtful support drew out the Philharmonia’s sensitivity, not overpowering the soloist and providing space for Zehetmair to breathe as well as in the orchestra’s own moments. The lead up to the development section in the first movement, for example, was gloriously heartwarming. Both soloist and orchestra enjoyed the springy bounce of the Rondo, and the Larghetto revealed horns and woodwinds like clear spring water and a delicious pizzicato section to accompany the transparent sweetness of Zehetmair’s tone.

After the interval, Herreweghe’s brisk tempos in Schubert’s chamber-like Fifth Symphony gave the Philharmonia no trouble at all, working together to give a natural flow to the music without losing any of the individual detail. Again, phrasing and precision were key, and this gave for a refreshing feel, although it did feel slightly over-shaped at times with shades and nuances at nearly every turn. But this did not detract from the overall effect, and Herreweghe always has a way of making sure that the performance does not become an academic study in precision, but rather something that he wants wholeheartedly to communicate. Repaying in kind, the orchestra played with accuracy and verve, strings sleek and light, bassoons and horns on-point in the third movement Trio, and flute and oboes lyrical and expressive throughout.

Slick though the performances were, I left feeling as though I’d had the main course but was still waiting for dessert.