Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor exemplifies the emotional striving and compositional ambition of his middle period, redistilling the pellucid, fizzing energy of his earlier work into a more fiery and Promethean eau de vie. For the musicologist Charles Grove, C minor represented Beethoven’s heroism and impatience, his unwillingness to take the world on its own terms.

Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

There was a purposeful truculence to the opening triadic motto of the concerto from the off, Sir Mark Elder keeping the stern unison strings of the London Symphony Orchestra soft but taut, striving in a confident two-in-a-bar. Despite emphatic placing of Beethoven’s wilful offbeat kicks and growls, Elder kept the emotional water at an anticipatory simmer rather than a roiling Werther-like boil.

Such restraint payed dividends when soloist Kirill Gerstein entered the fray with a weighty lyricism that evoked the emotional chiaroscuro of later Chopin. This did not mean slackness or indulgence: Gerstein’s forcefully articulated left hand kept the motor running in the movement’s rapid passagework (barring a couple of minor fumbles).The first movement was built on an explicit dialogue between piano and woodwinds, stressing the collegial listening at the heart of Gerstein’s refined approach.

The LSO smouldered in the coda, counterpoised by Gerstein’s carelessly elegant descending arpeggios. The middle period was also where Beethoven found quieter and more otherworldly reaches in his music, withdrawing into dream and fantasy. The slow movement is a luminous sidestep into the distant warmth of E major, a Largo of divine breadth described by his pupil Czerny as “holy, distant, and celestial”. Gerstein was more lyrically explicit and emotive than this might imply, revelling in cantabile lines that were operatic rather than ethereal, all perched on a well-plumped cushion of LSO strings and sumptuous bassoon.

Apparently Beethoven once upended a tureen of stew on a waiter’s head, then howled with laughter. The Rondo sits between a semi-serious dramatic intensity (see the short fugal interlude, or almost-pompous fanfares of the second theme) and a slapstick, madcap humour. Gerstein brought a charming improvisatory freedom to the performance, embellishing the main theme with each return, to Elder’s clear enjoyment. Gerstein’s daredevil playing never lacked for poise, though, and tight ensemble and crisp articulation from Elder and his colleagues never made the thing feel neurotic: the coda bounced merrily to its conclusion, full of wit and sunshine, cheeky rather than impetuous.

“I must say I’m relieved to see you’re all still here,” Elder said to the audience post-interval. The prospect of a work by Ives can be enough to send people home early. The programme originally promised Ives’ Symphony no. 4, a work of astonishing novelty and experiment, but instead we got his more conventional Symphony no. 2, composed around 1902 though revised later to give it, as Elder said, “a bit more mustard”.

Elder is a fine guide to this music. He introduced us to the folk tunes and hymns that constitute its basic material; he has the devilish authority and dry charm of a loveable A Level history teacher. It’s the music-making itself that came out to bat most strongly for Ives: the opening Andante’s strings and winds had the glassy restraint of Tchaikovskian neoclassicism; the Allegro proper was spoked with Mahlerian folk reminiscences and punchy, Wagnerian trombones, with an LSO acutely responsive to the work’s beguiling and unpredictable shifts in mood. The central sentimental Adagio around which the five-movement structure hinges was warm and well-drawn without being saccharine; its wind and brass chorales committed and open-hearted, with particularly fine playing from the LSO horn section.

For Leonard Bernstein, Ives was an “authentic primitive”. His pieces always bear the idiosyncratic stamp of their native material, even if they feel stylistically like pastiche. (The artists of the United States, as the critic Harold Bloom pointed out, have always had an unusually neurotic struggle with originality.) Ives’ lack of formal training gives these larger-scale works a picaresque, episodic quality, and conductors must varnish and buff texture and melody interest to try and make up for a structural discipline wanting in the music. Which is what Elder and the LSO did, spotlighting some gorgeous moments.

The finale was surely the most convincing sequence: a Maestoso movement offering more Brahmsian dignity – the First and Fourth Symphonies seemed particularly close to the surface – growing into a spirited barn dance. Plenty of mustard there, with astringent LSO strings getting right up your nose, and obviously having a great time doing so. The pastoral interludes gave us forest horn-calls straight out of Humperdinck. The thing was rounded out by heroic trombone playing, players standing to blast out ‘Columbia, Gem of the Ocean’, before the raucous clash of the final chord, snapping closed this strange box of Americana.