As part of the ongoing Shakespeare400 series curated by the London Philharmonic Orchestra it was gratifying to hear Otto Nicolai’s seldom-performed Overture, The Merry Wives of Windsor which began Friday’s concert. By the sheer joie de vivre of this performance Osmo Vänskä made clear that this colourful and melody-infused score should be given more frequent outings. Guest conducting the LPO, he took every opportunity to point up the overture’s infectious tunes and rhythmic high spirits, (Shakespeare’s play was after all a comedy) and perfectly judged its tempo and instrumental weight.

Hyeyoon Park © Giorgia Bertazzi
Hyeyoon Park
© Giorgia Bertazzi
Perhaps it was the proximity to Valentine’s Day that Korngold’s unashamedly romantic Violin Concerto in D major was placed next. Joining the LPO for this stirring work was the award-winning and Korean-born violinist Hyeyoon Park. After an insecure start, she went on to fashion an unsentimental account of the work, one that recycles several melodies from the composer's film scores. In the first movement (and elsewhere) the soloist seemed at her best in tender passages where a more opulent tone was perhaps redundant. But it was the absence of rich tone that one missed, especially where Korngold’s more expansive tunes came into view, and attempts to produce a more substantial sound occasionally produced harsh results. The slow movement began well, but seemed to lose focus half way and intimate passages failed to sustain a sense of direction. Things recovered well in the finale where Vänskä and Park, now back on track, achieved a more swashbuckling vigour, and if we couldn’t quite conjure Errol Flynn on stage then there was plenty of red-blooded vitality to this performance. Her Elgar Études Charactéristiques, Op.24 (No. 5) encore was ill-judged but the audience was generous in its applause.

Osmo Vänskä’s reputation has been built largely on a series of acclaimed recordings demonstrating his passion for Sibelius. He now seems to be a great admirer of Elgar, which became clear from this authoritative reading of the composer’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat. Vänskä’s obvious fervour and his grip on the score were unmistakable. Admittedly, at the start there could have been more nobilemente, but this was a reading where momentum was at the forefront of his vision. There was plenty of light and shade too with a satisfying balance between Elgar’s embracing warmth and his “stout and steaky” earthiness. Vänskä’s gestures (sometimes looking rather ordinary from behind) drew balanced and committed playing from his forces so that nothing appeared overblown, the music always heading naturally towards its goal and the recapitulation of the first movement was tremendous. 

Meticulous preparation ensured that the fast paced Scherzo held together (string ensemble was totally secure) and which gained in intensity for its well-judged dynamics and balance between muscle and melodiousness. The slow movement was magical where in those final dreamy bars conductor and players seemed to occupy a far-away place, (muted trombones and timpani astonishingly soft), all fabulously polished. This heightened the tensions of the finale which gloriously demonstrated how well both the players and conductor have bonded in their collaboration. More Elgar please from Vänskä if this performance is anything to go by.