The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “A place to call home” season last night featured “Three Britons” – Elgar, Tippett and Coleridge-Taylor – with the latter achieving a London premiere some 125 years late. Composed for the Three Choirs Festival in 1898, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Solemn Prelude was a great success at its Worcester Cathedral premiere, but then disappeared more or less without trace. Current Three Choirs Festival head, Alexis Paterson, unearthed the manuscript in the British Library for an enthusiastically received 2021 revival

Steven Osborne, Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

For its London premiere, the LPO and Edward Gardner gave a lusciously rich performance, the orchestra's impressive string sound in particular setting out their stall well for the Elgar later in the evening. Whilst not especially remarkable, the piece has some delightful subtle moments amidst the lyrical surges, and despite a passionate climax, ends in restrained calm. This performance provided an enthusiastically strong showcase.  

Sadly, Tippett’s Piano Concerto rarely reaches the concert platform, so it was a pleasure to see it presented here in such assured hands. It is remarkably accessible despite the often angular, detailed orchestration and phenomenal difficulty of the writing for the piano (so much so that pianist Julian Katchen walked out just before the premiere, labelling it unplayable). Part of the difficulty lies in the solo instrument’s role. The technical demands are constant, and often dovetailed with a mosaic of orchestral writing, rather than as virtuosic displays with accompaniment. Even the dramatic first movement cadenza is crashed by ornamental offerings from the celesta. In fact the celesta features throughout the work, particularly alongside muted horns and solo viola, and it joins the piano again for a bluesy interlude towards the end of the final movement. 

Steven Osborne was on dazzling form technically, but also expertly managed the complicated interplay with the orchestra, particularly evident in the slow movement, with the horns and woodwind playing imitative games whilst the piano is off in another world of cascades and flourishes. Gardner kept a tight rein on proceedings too, controlling the dynamics of the richly textured, often spikily polyphonic orchestration. The finale set off at a gallop, full of jazzy sparkle from Osborne, and Gardner brought proceedings together for a glorious tutti, and a crazy build up to the unexpectedly yet emphatically tonal final cadence.

Osborne’s encore was intimate and understated in contrast – a brief improvisatory take on the opening of Keith Jarrett’s Vienna Concert, its pianissimo calmness providing moving simplicity after Tippett’s virtuosic complexity.

Despite its familiarity, Elgar’s skilful transformation of his thematic material throughout his First Symphony never ceases to impress. The opening presentation of the noble theme sets us off perhaps expecting Elgar in Pomp and Circumstance mode, but here Gardner ensured there was dynamic shape to the line from the outset, avoiding bombast. The Allegro followed with a suitable jolt, plenty of turbulent energy and unsettling explosions from the brass, always within an overall sense of control. 

Gardner took the scurrying second movement at a pace, and the LPO responded with energy and precision. They achieved great contrast between the somewhat threatening march theme and the gentler, almost Mahlerian interlude, with fluid woodwind and watery harps (much more present in the mix, with their more central stage position). The Adagio benefited from touchingly hushed strings and a wistful final clarinet solo to end. Elgar pulls out all the textural stops in the finale, with frequently divided strings and variety of instrumentation, and Gardner allowed the detail to emerge, holding onto the building tension, giving the final return of the noble theme added power, bringing a fine performance to a triumphant conclusion. 

****1