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Only four months to go. Last week’s announcement of the new season plans at the Royal Festival Hall brought home how close salvation lies for the South Bank’s resident orchestras, which have spent the period of the refurbishment condemned to the much smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall next door.

It really will be all change, as the Philharmonia (like its opposite number, the London Philharmonic) has announced the appointment of a new principal conductor from 2008/9. After 10 years at the helm Christoph von Dohnányi will be handing over to Esa-Pekka Salonen an orchestra with a sharper musical profile than it had when he arrived.

Dohnányi’s performances may not be easy to love, but his rigorous style has kept the players on their toes. He has probably had a bigger impact than London audiences are aware, as his most substantial achievements – important operas by Strauss and Schoenberg – have been seen only at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where the Philharmonia established a presence under his leadership.

During the period of exile at the QEH Dohnányi has not been much in evidence. But Sunday’s concert – one of a pair (another follows next Sunday) – showed what the partnership can achieve. The first half shunned the Philharmonia’s favourite big symphonic repertoire for small-scale Mozart and Strauss: a clear and well-articulated performance of Mozart’s little G Minor Symphony, No 25, and a light-fingered, classical account of Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, played with winning effervescence by Christopher Cowie, that reminded us how close to Mozart’s spirit Strauss felt in his last years.

After the interval Brahms’s Symphony No.4 marked a return to Dohnányi’s core repertoire. Here was the severe, trenchant classicism for which he has become known. One more new departure: the performance of the Strauss was recorded for sale later this year through the Philharmonia’s online shop. ★★★★☆

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