As part of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2020 Vision series of concerts, a hotchpotch of works were gathered together to produce a rather mixed bag of an evening. While the curation of concert programmes around set themes can produce interesting results, it can also produce odd combinations of works that don’t quite sit well together and this was one of those.

Osmo Vänskä © Joel Larson
Osmo Vänskä
© Joel Larson

Elgar’s homage to Richard Strauss, the overture In the South, is a work that shows clearly the composer’s strengths and weaknesses. Wonderful opulent orchestration, exciting impetus, particularly in the opening passage and the ghostly march of the development section, are held within a structure that overstays it welcome. Written in something of rush in 1904, one wonders if the work would have benefited from some judicious trimming. Osmo Vänskä and the LPO certainly understood the ebb and flow of the piece and mostly the pace was pushed quite hard. However, the central march dragged a little, reducing its impact, and the exciting coda lacked punch.

Louis Spohr’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in D minor is a true rarity in the concert hall now, along with most of the composer’s other works that have drifted into obscurity, so it was of interest to have this opportunity to hear it played with conviction here. Once considered the equal of, if not superior to, Beethoven, it was easy to see from this outing why his polite, middle-of-the-road style has not stood the test of time.

Sergej Krylov performed the tricky virtuoso solo part with energy and a colourful palette of tone. However, the rather unimaginative orchestral writing didn’t contribute much to the proceedings. A large string section seemed to emphasise the blandness, where a smaller band might have produced something perter. Only in the Alla Polacca finale did the performance and the music seem to come alight and even this movement outstayed its welcome.

Anton Webern was later known for his purest adoption of Serialism, but his early Im Sommerwind sounds like a conglomeration of Strauss, Debussy and Reger. A work of dubious effectiveness, it does have some notable moments. The mysterious, dawn-like opening passage and the eventual romantic sweep of the climax being the most memorable. However, structurally it lacks cohesion even in the best of performances. This good account featured lush string tones and beautifully detailed woodwind playing and a committed approach from Vänskä.

It was Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Book of Visions that made the best impression of the evening. Written in 2004, it was the last composition he wrote before a major illness reduced his ability to work and, in many ways, its dark sinister atmosphere seemed to foreshadow the difficulties soon to come. In four movements it has the gravitas and structural connections of a symphony, but the composer avoided that title because of the personal nature of the work.

Fellow Finn Vänskä clearly has the idiom of this music under his skin, with its distant echoes of the composer’s mentor, Sibelius, never far away. However, Rautavaara’s harmonic language, built from a bedrock of tonal harmonies to which he adds notes to create cluster chords which move in conventional harmonic ways, is not Sibelian at all. His understanding of form is more rhapsodic too, with an apparently free-flowing spontaneous evolution of material, which managed to produce satisfying results in Rautavaara's extended movements.

The LPO and Vänskä clearly relished the chance to get their teeth into such a rewarding and beautiful work. May it inspire other programmers and conductors to explore this music further, as it manages to be both challenging and accessible at the same time.

***11