The first of the thirteen concerts the London Philharmonic Orchestra has planned for its modified autumn season was recorded in an empty Royal Festival Hall. The programme combined two lesser-known opuses with a true blockbuster, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Thanks to the contextual knowledge attached to the latter, and also as a recognition of the world’s current predicament, the concert was labelled “Tragedy and Triumph”. The title is a vague and large-enough umbrella, but one still needs a certain stretch of imagination to fit the other two performed works under it.

Edward Gardner conducts the LPO in an empty Royal Festival Hall
© Mark Allan

Leading an ensemble expanded to fill the entire stage, for distancing reasons, was the LPO’s Principal Conductor Designate, Edward Gardner. He conducted everything with the same confidence, ebullient energy and graceful gestures that seem to have been his trademark from the very beginning of his career.

Jörg Widmann wrote Con Brio in 2008. The overture is just a little over ten minutes long and employs by design the same orchestral apparatus as Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies (double winds, two horns, two trumpets and timpani). As many other Widmann creations that give out the sensation of being clever pastiches or “deconstructions” of existing works (and in fact are not), Con Brio doesn’t include direct Beethovenian quotes. However, the master’s spirit is invoked and made present, as if the composer is able to transform the conductor’s instrument into a magician’s wand. Widmann has a very deep understanding of the history of Western music, enabling his creations to be simultaneously attractive to those who admire “new” music as well as to those who disparage it. As elsewhere, in Con Brio he somehow puts together bits and pieces that excite us with their novel sounds while kindling our memories at the same time. Eerie dreams and loud hunting calls coexist. The conceived universe – ludic, ironic, full of unconventional sounds played with traditional instruments – is one of great complexity. It is a difficult score to master, and Edward Gardner succeeded with skill and panache. It was a true con brio rendition.

Edward Gardner
© Mark Allan

Five years “younger” and several minutes longer, the selection of seven Sibelius songs, bearing the title In the Stream of Life, was orchestrated by the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara and had its première in 2014 with the same soloist, Gerald Finley, and with Gardner leading his “other” orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic. The selected songs illustrate Sibelius’ constant interest, touched by pantheistic beliefs, in nature and myth. Rautavaara’s orchestration is sparse, subtle, and definitely unobtrusive; the one for Näcken was particularly beautiful. Nevertheless, most of the songs have an intimate, Schubertian quality that might be better suited to piano accompaniment. The versatile Canadian bass-baritone, always daring in his choice of repertoire, proved once again that he can adapt to singing in any language (the first song – Die stille Stadt – is in German and the rest are in Swedish, Sibelius’ mother tongue). His voice constantly measured and rarely soaring (in the final Svarta rosor/ Black Roses), Finley enveloped every line in refined, sinuous curves, accentuating the music’s rhapsodic quality.

Gerald Finley sings Sibelius
© Mark Allan

Gardner and the LPO finished their hour-long journey with an account of Beethoven’s Fifth marked by an unrelenting sense of urgency and drive. At the same time, nothing was over-emphasised, neither dynamically nor rhythmically. The many dialogues between strings and winds were always balanced and the famous transition between the Scherzo and the Finale was built with utmost care for detail. As they should, classical rigour and romantic effusiveness moved in tandem, never allowing one of them to dominate.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Marquee TV.