What comes to mind when you think of a composer’s last works? Maybe a profound musical expression, a composer’s acceptance of his mortality, or perhaps a fear of death, or a summation of his life’s work? Such works like Mahler’s Ninth, Beethoven’s late string quartets or Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs might reflect some of this as a result of the composer suffering from failing health or simply reaching his twilight years. But the first half of Sir Mark Elder’s programme with the London Symphony Orchestra, containing works by Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók written just before they died, showed that a composer’s final works are not always obvious contenders for these categories.

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

For one thing, Janáček did not know that he was weeks away from death when he started work on his incidental music to Gerhart Hauptmann’s comic play Schluck und Jau in 1928. Although Hauptmann’s play was not a success, Janáček persisted with his project and completed two movements before being struck with a fatal bout of pneumonia. However, this rarely performed work, the last orchestral piece he wrote, is far from being a mere curiosity. As Elder himself explained in his introduction, if you hadn’t heard Janáček before and only listened to this 10-minute piece, you’d have all the fingerprints of his late musical style. Elder captured all of the composer’s characteristic quirkiness and invention, with passages of pure beauty and hints of fanfares from his famous Sinfonietta written two years earlier. In true operatic style (his storytelling skills from his ENO days coming to the fore), Elder shaped the essence of an unfolding drama, with the LSO playing evocatively and with purpose, although some of the woodwind exclamations could have done with a touch more piquancy to maintain that Janáček spice. 

Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 was written in the final months of his life during a period of respite from failing health, and it has a lighter, almost Classical feel compared with his earlier works. Swiss pianist and former BBC New Generation Artist, Francesco Piemontesi, making his LSO debut, played to his strengths by presenting a cultured and refined interpretation, with careful placing of notes and a particularly fine feel for the shape of the music. The lack of rough edges gave a more romantic gloss to this performance, which was an interesting take on Bartók, but it could have done with a tad more bite. This lyrical approach did, however, produce a rather fine second movement, capturing the contemplative religioso element which contrasted with the jerky flutterings of the ‘night music’ and the muscular folk-driven pounding rhythms of the Finale. Elder’s support was sensitive and symbiotic, and Piemontesi produced an accomplished performance embodying the mantra of his mentor, Alfred Brendel, who had taught him “to love the detail of things”.

Elder and Elgar go together like strawberries and cream. Following in a long line of distinguished interpreters, Elder has proved to be a fine, diehard Elgarian, his pedigree being left in no doubt in this exceptional performance of Elgar’s Symphony no.1 in A flat major. Subtle balances were created from the dense and complex score, Elder gently cajoling the music to make it neither too rushed nor too sluggish, particularly in the expansive grandeur of the first movement, although the rather brisk-paced second movement slightly ran away in the strings at the beginning before settling and drifting Nimrod-like into an Adagio full of longing. The LSO was luscious and rich with a marvellous depth of sound, silvery strings and golden brass and winds, and Elder’s careful build up of episodic threads weaving through the fabric of the Lento continued impressively into the pulsing drive and sweeping melodies of the Finale. Elder has mastered the art of control and restraint in Elgar’s music, building up at just the right point and then allowing the orchestra to take full flight, giving flashes of brilliance and digging deep in the emotionally charged narrative. It was stirring stuff indeed.