LPO/Gardner review - defiant and exultant Beethoven opens new season

Royal Festival Hall, London
A magnificent, edgy Fifth Symphony was paired with Jörg Widmann’s energetic Con Brio and complemented by a haunting group of Sibelius songs

The London Philharmonic’s autumn season moves online this year, though the opening concert was filmed before a small invited audience ahead of next Wednesday’s streaming on Marquee TV. Edward Gardner conducted, and the programme reverted to the format of the orchestra’s 2020 Vision series, which places works by Beethoven alongside music written two centuries later. So the Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1808, was paired with Jörg Widmann’s concert overture Con Brio, written in 2008, originally to precede performances of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. In between came In the Stream of Life, a group of Sibelius songs orchestrated by Einojuhani Rautavaara for Gerald Finley, who gave the premiere with Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic in 2014, and also sang them here.

Passion and warmth … Gerald Finley.
Passion and warmth … Gerald Finley. Photograph: Mark Allan

Among Widmann’s most frequently heard works, Con Brio is essentially a postmodern riff on Beethoven, in which allusions are pulled in and out of focus during the course of an anarchic scherzo. You either care for its brittle, mordant humour or you don’t, but in this instance it made an effective bravura curtain raiser, played and conducted with bags of energy and panache.

The contrast with the introspection of the Sibelius/Rautavaara songs couldn’t have been sharper. Opening with the haunting Dehmel setting Die stille Stadt and closing with the moody, familiar Svarta rosor (Black Roses), this is a notably beautiful sequence, in which Rauatavaara’s often sparse orchestrations carefully probe the emotional meaning of each song. They suit Finley down to the ground, and he sings them with understated passion, great warmth of tone and a fastidious sense of line.

Beethoven’s Fifth, meanwhile, was magnificently done. The opening motto was flung out with an edgy defiance, after which Gardner never allowed the tension to relax, pressing through the slow movement with remarkable urgency, and achieving remarkable things in the fiercely exultant finale. Orchestral textures were lean and clear and the playing was tremendous in its ferocious energy and commitment.

Streamed on Marquee TV on 30 September, then available free on demand for seven days.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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