This was the first concert in a short series entitled Brahms the Romantic, which involves the four symphonies and Ein deutsches Requiem conducted by Lorin Maazel.
Maazel led a similar series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 2007.
Here in London, the First and Second symphonies were given by the Philharmonia Orchestra with playing of unsurpassed beauty and refinement.
Maazel, now 78, remains a dapper podium presence. As is his custom, he conducted both symphonies from memory, using a clear beat and obvious attention to detail. Maazel has sometimes been criticised for conducted highly controlled performances with no real sense of emotional involvement, but that was certainly not the case on this occasion.
From its powerful opening, the First Symphony received a performance of enormous intensity; weighty but not heavy, spacious but not slow. Throughout, phrasing and balance were exemplary, with refulgent strings, marvellous woodwind sonorities and great tonal beauty from the brass.
Particular highlights were the oboe melody in the Andante, a performance of such eloquence that words are largely inadequate, and the horn solo in the last movement, a spine-tingling moment. Perhaps the closing pages could have had a touch more forward drive and visceral excitement, but overall this was an intellectually and emotionally stimulating interpretation.
Many of the same qualities were heard in Brahms’s rich and lyrical Second Symphony. The orchestral playing was first class in both instrumental solos and tutti alike, and Maazel’s careful attention to phrasing, balance and dynamics was everywhere apparent. Unlike in the performance of the First Symphony, I occasionally sensed that local detail had come at the expense of the longer line, but it was nonetheless a warm and compelling performance.
In summary, a memorable achievement by Maazel, and simply the finest orchestral playing I have heard all year.