It is too much of a good thing to have Sir John Eliot Gardiner return to the podium of the Barbican Hall with an all-Schumann concert, just few days after a laureled performance there with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yet such auspicious expectations were set aside – specifically for 20 minutes – due to timpanist John Chimes’ fashionably late arrival for his duties.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

With the full regiment in disposal, Gardiner and the LSO settled seamlessly into the Overture, Scherzo and Finale. In a work that can give the impression of a symphonic sketch, Gardiner found an ideal balance between lilt and nobility, recalling the qualities that made Sunday’s performance so memorable. The woodwinds gliding through the lean, lyrical strings were special, yet the highlights were in the clarity of the contrapuntal and chorale-like sections of the Finale, where Gardiner rose to his credential as early music specialist.

Not all composers have a Bruckner Ninth or Tchaikovsky Sixth, a valedictory masterpiece embodying the musical and spiritual summation of the composer. Sadly, the creative might of Schumann fell with his psychophysical decline, a symptom imprinted on what could have been his last major effort, the Violin Concerto.

So much for public opinion. Gardiner seemed to have found a masterpiece in the long forgotten work, and his sensitivity was empathic toward both the middle-ranged voice of Faust’s violin and the diaphanous nature of the work. In some ways, it was as conventional as Gardiner could get, without the silky accents and with occasions of broad fervour. Some sections came to a standstill, which was appropriate in highlighting Faust’s delicate fragility. Faust’s versatile playing was rarely mannered, and her playing implied there was much delight – perhaps an afterglow – as much as profundity in the work, notably in the Finale. A crowd-pleasing vogue this work will never be, the performance had an oomph that will not easily be forgotten.

The second half of the concert returned to familiar territory of Schumann’s oeuvre, with the Genoveva overture executed with pulsating precision and legato-driven warmth. The selection of the 1841 version for the D minor Symphony couldn’t have been any other way, as the earlier de-Romanticised form of the work befits Gardiner’s penchant for clarity and orchestral balance. Expectedly, much colour and detail were conjured from the inner voices of the orchestra, but also novel was the drawn-out ending of the Scherzo.

Still, in Gardiner’s reading which eschewed the visceral essence of the Romantic work, spontaneity appeared excised together with the unfettering of orchestral texture. Or had the past two weeks of all the travelling and standing (in the pair of London concerts, all but two works were performed stood up) caught up with the musicians? The triumphant themes of the Finale could have been less subtle, even if the orchestral shapes of the mighty chorale-like ideas were admirably kept. As if to recapitulate the weekend’s glory, the last third of the Scherzo from the Second Symphony was performed as an encore. However, the joy felt all too forced.