Concert promoters like titles these days and this London Philharmonic Orchestra one was dubbed “Landscapes and Love Songs” which seemed a bit of a stretch for the programme, though “A Nordic Sandwich” might not have appealed much either. Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor hardly needs a four-movement curtain-raiser, especially when a 45-minute symphony is to follow. But Edward Gardner is currently Principal Conductor of both the LPO and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestras. The latter position was once held by Grieg, so why not open with something from Bergen’s greatest son?

Edward Gardner conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Mark Allan

The Lyric Suite is an orchestration of four of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces for piano. The first piece, Bell Ringing, was orchestrated by Grieg although he omitted it from the suite. Gardner’s decision to include it was welcome, as its gentle sway made an evocative opening. Notturno had something of the same quality, while the two so-called marches – Norwegian March (rather more pastoral than military) and March of the Dwarfs – were given with the conviction one would associate with Gardner’s other orchestra in this music.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto was a long time in the making, starting life as a one-movement “Fantasie” and acquiring its next two movements years later. But fantasy is still the prevailing impetus behind much of its invention. The orchestral part is so interwoven with the piano writing that conductor and soloist need even more than usual a shared interpretation and close collaboration in performance.

That was what we heard, or perhaps at times overheard, so private did some moments seem. Jan Lisiecki, just 26, is already well known as a poet of the keyboard, and the shared wind and piano first subject was a delight – this Allegro affetuoso was throughout affectionate indeed, the cadenza as much a reminiscence as virtuoso showpiece. In the second theme of the Intermezzo the cellos’ duetting with the soloist was rapturous – perhaps this was the love song of that concert title? The finale danced its way to a joyful conclusion. The Schumann encore – Träumerei from Kinderszenen, what else? – was less successful, its dragging tempo and hesitations rather distorting a piece essentially simple in mood.

Gardner was a certain guide through Sibelius’s Second Symphony, with a particular care for the dynamics of the first movement. He kept the volume down for the approach to the main climax, so the tension grew as the sound swelled, until released high in the strings, a great moment not always brought off so effectively. Some LPO solos made their poetic mark in the second movement, from the bassoon theme (Jonathan Davies) at the outset, then when the trumpet (Paul Beniston) recalled that theme it was as a summons from some Kalevala tale. Gardner allowed his players room to make such moments tell.

The continuous stretch of the ensuing movements was very well directed, and from the Vivacissimo opening of the third to the stirring big melody of the finale there was a strong narrative line. The oboe’s (Ian Hardwick) repeated note tune twice provided shelter from the third movement storm with plangent tone, and the brass interjections were emphatic, even if the loudness at times bordered on coarseness. The mighty coda though had fine breadth and nobility. 

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