This first concert of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Conductor Designate, Edward Gardner, gave a good indication of the likely repertoire that he will bring to the orchestra. Slightly left of centre, but with strong roots in the traditional programming. It being the first time he has been at the helm of one of the big London orchestras, we wait to see how he will make his mark through distinctive programming. And this concert certainly indicated in many ways a very fruitful relationship in the making.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Bartók’s Dance Suite is second only to his much-loved Concerto for Orchestra as his most popular orchestral work, and from this lively performance you could see why. Gardner and the LPO adopted a nicely graded approach to the structure and rhythmic impetus of the piece, so that when the final rush to the finish arrived there was a real feeling of release. The orchestra was its usual silky self, with the brass sounding particularly rounded and the woodwind pert and alert to the dance elements.

William Walton’s Violin Concerto is one of his most glamorous works, commissioned by Jascha Heifetz at a time, in the late 1930s, when he was riding high in terms of fame and achievement. Yet, despite being a work of great facility and enormous charm, it does also demonstrate some of the weaknesses of the composer. Walton was not the most high-minded of composers and was guarded in his displays of emotion. In the Violin Concerto there is a sense of artificiality which is not mitigated by the brilliant orchestration and inspired, “passionate” thematic material.

James Ehnes, dinner-suited and starch-shirted, gave it all he was worth in terms of projecting the varied moods and colours of the piece. The considerable technical demands were met effortlessly under his fingers and he was generously supported by a lively and responsive LPO. But despite all their sterling efforts, one was still left feeling that the concerto is somehow lacking in sincerity. Walton found a more honest voice in his other two string concertos, the one for viola and, particularly, the late Cello Concerto.

Nielsen's Symphony no. 4, known as “The Inextinguishable”, on the other hand, is a work of such powerful emotion and universality that it tends to overshadow most other symphonies of the 20th century. Written during World War 1, its troubled demeanour was clearly influenced by the catastrophic events happening around him, but perhaps even more directly it also represents the traumas in his own married life. This combination of factors produced perhaps his most cogent and accessible work.

And it can be a dream or nightmare for conductors to bring off. In four joined movements with linked thematic material, its 35 minute span needs a sure sense of purpose from the conductor to reveal the noble logic of its conception. And Gardner’s approach seemed to resound with inner truth at every turn. The opposing forces of good and evil, consonance and dissonance, were ideally balanced, and tempi throughout seemed ideal. Rarely has the opening movement had such full-blooded power, which morphed into the simple peasant dance elements of the second movement with tender naturalness. The passionate slow movement was emotional and tragic, avoiding a stern face that can sometimes appear and instead here became the heart of the work. The LPO strings were superbly rich and confident in attacking the unison writing.

In the finale Gardner trusted Nielsen, as others sometimes don’t, to allow the movement to grow organically through the passages of panic, stasis and battle. The barrage of sound between two timpanists that crowns this passage has rarely sound so hair-raising: all credit must go their splendidly controlled delivery. The final victorious assumption of a bright E major seemed a truly convincing miracle of positivity and it was also very moving.

An auspiciously successful concert for the LPO and Gardner then, crowned by an exceptional performance of the Nielsen.

****1