Two contrasting works composed during the Second World War bookended the UK premiere of a Cello Concerto that is “more concerned with collaboration than conflict”, according to its composer. Sadly, a programme entitled “War and Peace” feels as relevant as ever, and the tension between conflict and collaboration continues, adding increased intensity to the two war-time compositions here, both ultimately calling for peace in their different ways.

Alban Gerhardt
© Kaupo Kikkas

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem was commissioned by the Japanese government to mark the 2600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. Despite being rejected because of its use of Latin Requiem titles and its less than celebratory feel, it was subsequently premiered in New York in 1941. Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave the Lacrymosa a heartfelt intensity, from the opening crash to the repeated lilting cries that emerge from the strings, with Gardner controlling the balance especially well to allow the solo viola lament to come through the texture. The Dies irae’s climax was suitably violent, before the calming flutes and warm horns brought peace in the Requiem aeternam. Gardner’s conducting was suitably controlled and precise, yet he also brought out the dark emotions beneath the surface, expressions of Britten’s anti-war sentiments, and also grief for the loss of his parents, for whom this also served as a memorial.

Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto was composed in 2018 and, following performances around the world, it now received its delayed UK premiere, with its dedicatee, Alban Gerhardt once again the soloist. The concerto has its genesis in a piece for solo cello that Dean had worked on previously, although this doesn’t show in the complexity of orchestration and variety of instrumental colours he brings to the concerto, including a wide array of percussion (with sandpaper and even bubble wrap making effective appearances). But this is not a concerto of gimmicks – the orchestral effects and colours complement the virtuosity and intensity of the soloist, and the overall effect is indeed one of “collaboration rather than conflict”. Gerhardt has clearly embraced the work, and over the concerto’s five continuous sections, he ranges from the highest to lowest registers, with incredibly precise microtonal scales and slides, brushing effects and harmonics as well as dazzling virtuosic passages in the faster sections. Gardner’s beat was incredibly precise throughout (a necessity, I am sure), and the LPO players have also embraced the work, so that it never felt like an arduous exercise in counting and rhythm. They enjoyed the full-on raucous tutti sections, and the cat-and-mouse chasing with the soloist. Dean’s use of contrasting keyboards – piano and Hammond organ – add a further flavour, and the ‘wow’ effect of different pitched woodblocks paired with brass is particularly striking. A highly engaging concerto, performed with incredible precision and commitment by soloist and orchestra alike.

Edward Gardner conducts the LPO
© Mark Allan

After the violence of his Fourth Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 5 in D major ostensibly takes us back to his more pastoral style, yet there is perhaps a greater emotional depth here, with elements of his ongoing work on The Pilgrim’s Progress, especially in the heartfelt, even spiritual Romanza. Gardner and the LPO gave us reassuring warmth in the up and down pentatonic melodies, and assured solos from across the orchestra, with particular mention deserved for Sue Böhling’s cor anglais solo in the Romanza. The final Passacaglia was a triumph, with ringing falling lines from the strings, and a bounce to the off-beat variations. Gardner expertly built towards the radiant climax, all the more intense for the tranquillity that followed, those up and down scales now gently ringing, with a masterfully controlled slowing down to the peaceful close.