It is fair to assess that Bach and Schumann, being respectively a guardian of Baroque polyphony and an arch-Romantic, have musical traits that vastly differ from each other. The adage that opposites attract thus holds somewhat true, when conductors who’ve made a name in Bach show sympathy toward the music of Schumann. This was the case for Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Philippe Herreweghe and for Sir John Eliot Gardiner, on the verge of recording a second cycle of Schumann symphonies, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The journey hasn’t always been straightforward. The piano concerto failed to materialise as pianist Piotr Anderszewski fell ill at their first attempt. On the pianist’s return, Anderszewski requested to substitute the piece with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Nevertheless, Gardiner’s pursuits were praised for novel musicality.

Like the LSO's previous Schumann concerts under Gardiner, the Manfred Overture was played standing up and in antiphonal configuration. Minimising string vibrato and using hard stick timpani, elements associated with Gardiner were eminent in the orchestral timbre. Where there was rhythmic precision, this was not done at the expense of horizontal aspects; ample string legatos with fluid tempo ensured forward thrust. Somewhat uncharacteristically, the woodwinds didn’t cut through the strings in some tuttis. Had Gardiner’s justification of giving “extra energy” to the strings by making them stand backfired? That said, the overall performance was a terrific demonstration of intimacy, unity and vigour, an alternative from Romantic readings of might and contrasts.

Classical refinement was the word in the opening chords of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. What initially felt as sensitive and noble in Anderszewski’s personality was soon enveloped in a total organism alongside the LSO. Without eccentricities, both soloist and orchestra found an ideal pulse, through which the stately Largo transposed into a festive Allegro scherzando finale. It was a riveting case of finding the right spirit of the moment. The innocent, unworldly Three Hungarian Folksongs from Czík by Bartók followed as an encore.

By concluding his Schumann symphony cycle with the First, Gardiner may have implied that the end is also the beginning. Yet as this “Spring” Symphony is the most jubilant of the completed quartet, it was also musically judicious that it was placed here as a finale exclamation mark. No more a smoothened Schumann as in the Manfred Overture, the brass and timpani propelled the intensely melodic narrative of the first movement with defined sharpness. In the Larghetto, how the beautiful cello melodies made way for the varied textures of the further lightened strings introducing Bach-like contours. Given how Gardiner had invigorated the orchestra, it was surprising to see how lax the following Scherzo and Finale were. Of a movement that was initially titled “Spring in Full Bloom”, the Finale had neither the freshness of spring nor a bloom in full strength. Incisiveness and togetherness were wanting, but this was only so when compared against the supreme musicality ascended in the earlier pieces of the evening. Summer follows spring, and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night's Dream as encore proved a sweet goodbye to what has been a persuasive Schumann cycle.

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