How many world premieres go on to receive repeat performances? Not many. Exploring the reasons for this state of affairs would take more than the “sudden time” in George Benjamin’s work of the same name. Suffice it to say that the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its Principal Conductor Edward Gardner had the courage to schedule a further outing for this work, some 30 years after its premiere. Was this time profitably invested or time unnecessarily wasted?

Leif Ove Andsnes
© Helge Hansen | Sony Music Entertainment

In his programme note, Benjamin refers to a dream in which the sound of a thunderclap seemed to stretch to at least a minute’s duration before circulating, as if in a spiral, through his head. There was much to admire in the way this piece is crafted, the ethereal string-based beginning, the polyrhythms mixing and coalescing, the use of a quartet of alto flutes adding melodic counterpoint at one stage, later matched by a quartet of tambourines, trombones sounding like foghorns, and above all the beseeching qualities of a viola solo just before the end. Ultimately, however, I was left with the impression of a gigantic cauldron filled with lots of ingredients bubbling away. Even in quieter passages there were far too many whirring images drifting or flashing past. Also plenty of anger seething underneath, redolent no doubt of the fears that inhabit our own nightmares, but nothing remotely consolatory. One searched in vain for a nodal point, a focus of centrality. But the shifting sands had already moved on, defying all definition.

There is a tang of freshness, of the sea air teasing the nostrils, in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. As the composer once quipped, “I am sure my music has a taste of codfish.” Now into his fifties, Leif Ove Andsnes still plays the work from a young person’s perspective. His impressive technique, with thundering octaves, ferocious trills (as at the close of the cadenza) and cascades of downward runs in an octane-charged Finale all commanded attention. Even if the 2/4 dance-like rhythms of the Hardanger fiddle in the final movement were delivered somewhat brusquely, with the poetry of the central Adagio hinted at rather than underlined, Andsnes offered much playfulness throughout, a childlike delight in uncovering  capricious details. The LPO and Gardner provided sterling support, not least in the fine horn and flute solos.

Andsnes has recently recorded the neglected cycle of Poetic Tone Pictures by Dvořák, thirteen little jewels of pianistic joy. It was especially rewarding to hear him play as an encore the fourth in this cycle, Spring Song.

In the autumn of 1940, Rachmaninov signed off his final masterpiece, the Symphonic Dances, with the words, “I thank Thee, Lord.” It is concertgoers today who in turn should thank the composer for a work of such uplifting grace and charm, particularly when it is played with the individual and corporate virtuosity of the LPO. It helped that this interpretation had already been honed on a tour preceding this concert, so that each strand of the orchestral texture glistened and gleamed with maximum allure. So many individual details impressed: the crepuscular nature of much of the opening movement, with moonbeams dancing and nightjars singing, the repeated infectious piquancy of the woodwind section, the delicacy of the keyboard percussion, the two harps in the Finale ushering in an airborne quality to the playing, the bells of the five horns held high in expressions of fizzing energy. And over and above all this, Gardner excelled in making palpable a supreme element of Rachmaninov’s writing: its yearning, in touch with those myriad pools of human desire.