Edward Gardner clearly has a thing for the Czechs. A month after he made his Royal Opera main-stage debut with Janáček's Katya Kabanova, here he was with the Filarmonica della Scala to conduct a strongly Czech programme: a Janáček and Dvořák sandwich with a Beethoven filling. Joining him was the Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, who led the way in setting the sensitive tone. Big-boned readings of all of the works of the programme would have been justified. Here, we got lightweight, invigorating interpretations which cleansed an audience that has had its fill of rich fare of late, given the triumphantly rich reading of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina that recently opened at the house.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

That said, things did not start especially promisingly. Janáček's Zalivost (Jealousy), a picture of fiery passion and desire, is a stirring mix of growling brass, thundering timpani and vigorous strings. Originally conceived as an overture to Jenůfa, it is starkly operatic. Or at least it ought to be. The Scala forces seemed wrong-footed, taken off-guard by the starting pistol, and having lost ground, they never caught up. This short, potentially impactful work had come and gone in a flash, leaving behind only bewilderment in its wake.

The arrival of Igor Levit inspired greater composure. Form his opening chord, extravagantly spread rather than tenderly placed, it was clear this was going to be a singular interpretation. All was delicate, sensitive and deeply introspective, with Levit, who, crouched over his keyboard, cut the ever-tortured artist, lavishing each note with love and attention. Rather than provide grit in the boiling cadenzas or expansiveness in the unfettered finale, everything was measured and contained – a mesmerising array of crystalline cascades, transparent reveries and quicksilver runs.

The orchestra responded with commensurate sensitivity, and special synthesis between Levit, Gardner and the Scala forces made for an absorbing dialogue. The agonised Andante con moto was utterly concentrated, Levit curling as he expressed poetic grief, the orchestra's menacing interjections incisive but never too heavy-handed to break the spell. The Rondo had a playful, bouncing-off-the-walls type quality, Gardner impressing with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of invention, Levit bobbing on his stool even long after he had emitted jolts of exultation. Utter childlike joy.

A present from London completed the Czech circle, Dvořák's invigorating Symphony no. 7, which premiered in 1885 at St James' Hall. The rocking Allegro maestoso – a wash of tidal surges, splashes of sea spray and flare-like incandescence – bounded with throbbing forwards momentum, Gardner gathering his forces with swinging gestures that inspired sweeping dynamism over a mechanical, march-like accumulation of energy. The bright Allegro maestoso was sweet yet noble, and Gardner's bright approach ensured the trickling Scherzo teemed with vital detail. It was an excitingly helter-skelter race to the end in the finale, and Gardner was rewarded with warm applause. After a well-received Royal Opera House debut, could an operatic engagement in Milan be on the cards for the British maestro?

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