The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s project this year is the Isle of Noises, a twelve month festival exploring centuries of musical composition and performance in Britain. As this country seeks to distance itself from Europe to various degrees, it seems an appropriate moment to celebrate the cultural cross-pollination that enabled our musical life – and that of our neighbours – to flourish. Where better to start than with Elgar, a composer who is synonymous to many with ‘English’ music, but whose compositions are ripe with the influence of Europe. This concert was an interesting survey of the Romantic period, beginning with Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas overture, through Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor and ending in the late romanticism of Elgar’s Symphony no. 2 in E flat major. It always seems a little disconcerting to see David Parry, for me indelibly associated with his excellent recordings with Opera Rara, conduct anything other than Italian opera, but he has a wide-ranging repertoire and was on fine form here.

David Parry
© Marco Borrelli

The Ruy Blas overture is one of those fine examples of a composer producing a piece from a source they detest; uninspired by Victor Hugo’s tragedy, he nonetheless provided the piece for a local theatre pension fund who had hoped that Mendelssohn's name on the playbill might drive up ticket sales. The overture doesn’t bear any great resemblance to the source, but is a jolly, neatly constructed piece; the LPO’s woodwind section gave a fine performance, their chord portentous and elegant, with nimble, searching responses from the strings in return. Parry pressed the work forward, capturing dramatic urgency but allowing the moods to shift without sounding hurried.

The charge most often levelled at Chopin’s First Piano Concerto is that the orchestration fails to match the writing for piano, which has condemned the piece to a lower rung of programming than perhaps it warrants. It’s a little slow to get off the ground; the LPO struggled to make much of the prelude, the strings glossy, but a little unanimated. The entry of pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell was understated and subtle, a measured, unforced cascade of elegant phrasing. That approach allowed a revisiting of assumptions about the orchestration; by avoiding a slightly dominating approach that can be favoured, we saw a warmth in dialogue between piano and orchestra at the end of the first movement. Benelli Mosell’s lyrical playing was well-matched by the sensitive texturing that Parry drew from the LPO. The slow movement is the one everyone remembers; Mosell’s playing was delicate, and there was fine interplay between piano and bassoon which gave depth to the performance. Benelli brought clear virtuosity to the joyous flurries in the Rondo, supported by muted strings and punctuated by an unusual clarity and perkiness to the horns.

The main virtue of Parry’s approach to the Elgar was in his avoidance of anything approaching bombast; energetic, yes, there was plenty of vim from the opening bars, but as with the Chopin, there was a sense of lyricism to the LPO’s performance. The Larghetto can run the risk of sounding overly melancholy, but Parry gave us something more nuanced that eschewed the vulgar in favour of a calmer contemplation, epitomised by the depth of the oboe-playing. If the second movement was subdued, the third lacked none of the virtuosity that a good performance requires, the fluttering of the woodwind giving way to splendidly robust brass, the string colour beneath a rich gold. Perhaps best, though, were the dying strains of the finale; the richness of the horns and the precision of the strings standing out as the music ebbed away. It was a studied interpretation, but one that benefited from the detail and texture that Parry gave it.