Continuing an interesting and illuminating initiative putting 21st-century works side by side with others conceived exactly 100 or 200 years earlier, the London Philharmonic Orchestra performed Magnus Lindberg’s Cello Concerto no. 2, composed in 2013, as the centrepiece for this concert. The programme surrounded it with several opuses, not necessarily revolutionary, but deserving to find a more prominent place in our day-to-day musical life. Truth be told, any links between the different pieces were not particularly strong. Nonetheless, the selection, conducted with an assured hand by Joshua Weilerstein, allowed online listeners to gain a different perspective on the evolution of classical music over the last two centuries. Hopefully, the futile “atmospheric” lights in the Royal Festival Hall, with different bluish-reddish nuances for each piece, were not too distracting.

Anssi Karttunen and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Anssi Karttunen and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Lindberg’s concerto is a musical arch, its three movements played without interruption, commencing with the soloist introducing a couple of building blocks to be used later, culminating in a centrally placed, fully written cadenza, and ending with a cello-intoned, up-and-down glissando followed by a little echoing postscript performed by the bassoon. Given the UK premiere on this occasion, the 20-minute composition is a typical display of Lindberg’s ability to successfully marry the serialist tendencies of his early opuses with more ear-pleasing tonal figments. Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen – a frequent collaborator of the composer – gracefully mastered the difficulties of a varied score. The sound of his instrument soared over a restrained orchestral apparatus in both the colourful variations leading to the concerto’s apex and the tango evoking rhythms and gradually calming waves marking the third movement.

Sally Matthews, Joshua Weilerstein and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sally Matthews, Joshua Weilerstein and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The ensemble was further reduced for the evening’s other work for solo and orchestra, Ravel’s marvellous and succinct Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, featuring a soprano voice that slowly becomes an integral part of the overall musical texture. Ravel was able here to find musical equivalents – exquisitely and discretely rendered – for Mallarmé’s hermetic imagery liberating – in Ravel’s words – “winged thoughts, unconscious daydreams, from their prison”. In Soupir, the initially whispering voice, the piano and the flutes all climbed together like the Mallarméan water fountain in quest for the Azure. After the strings’ eerie introduction accompanying Placet futile’s first quatrain, the piano’s arpeggios were perfectly suitable companions for the frivolous thoughts of an abbé admiring a silhouette painted on a Sévres porcelain cup. With an instrumentation inspired by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Ravel’s score gets, at several points, especially in the final Surgi de la croupe et du bond (Rising up from its bulge and stem), as close to atonality as never before or since. Weilerstein made sure, without overemphasising them, that such moments – the piccolo on top of the violins’ tremolo in “Surgi…” – were not ignored. Beautifully rendering the score’s legatos, Sally Matthews’ sensuous and mellifluous soprano was perfectly suited to this music, even if her diction was not always as fully intelligible as is could have been.

Sally Matthews © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sally Matthews
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Similar to Lindberg’s concerto and to Ravel’s Soupir, Sibelius’ austere The Bard, is also an arch, gradually growing from and returning to silence. It describes an old magus pinching the chords of his harp and evoking – via a violin melody or a trumpet and trombone intervention – floating images of his past. Anchored by the subtle playing of Principal Harp Rachel Masters, this rendition aptly captured the elegiac nature of the work with its musical strands hanging in the air and rarely resolved.

After three works full of mystery and undertones, Schubert’s Symphony no. 1 in D major sounded anticlimactic. A vivacious interpretation could not hide the difficulty to find, in this carefully crafted exercise by a 16-year-old composer, suggestions of the wonderful things to come.

This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV video stream