Sunday night’s programme presented the perfect opportunity for Edward Gardner to flex his orchestral muscles on the podium as he prepares to step down as Music Director of the ENO at the end of the season and spend more on the podium leading the Bergen Philharmonic. The concert culminated in Mahler’s trail-blazing Symphony no. 1 in D major, but this was preceded by more subtle, yet no less dramatic fare, from Mendelssohn and Mozart.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Mendlessohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), got off to a slightly pedestrian start; the opening failing to conjure up the ominous sense of an eerily calm sea. The first, brief climax early on in the work gave way to some tender playing from the strings during the serene major key passages, enhanced by Gardner’s noticeably drawn out tempi in these sections. However, there was never quite a clear sense of narrative, and the piece came across as slightly too fragmented.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor was a good contender to follow Mendelssohn’s stormy overture. Whilst it is often remarked that this is one of just two concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key, it is possibly more important to note that this is his only concerto to actually end in a minor key, as no. 20 succumbs to convention and erupts into an ebullient D major coda at the end. It also lacks the theatricality of that concerto and requires a more subtle form of intensity in performance.

The concerto began at a worryingly staid tempo, particularly as the first movement is the fastest movement of the piece; marked Allegro it was played as a somewhat leisurely Allegretto. I had hoped for more dynamism from the combination of performers, led by pianist Sunwook Kim, the youngest ever winner of the Leeds Piano Competition. Despite my initial reservations, I became more engaged after the piano entry, the broader tempo allowed Kim space to articulate his phrases with character. At times, the piano disappeared into the orchestral texture, which was a shame, as it seemed as though Kim really had something to say in this piece. The central Larghetto, with its sublime wind writing, was played with the simplicity and grace required, tranquil yet never sentimental. Unfortunately, the final movement failed to shatter this tranquillity, marked at a slower tempo than the first, it came across again as plodding and slightly stale.

Mahler’s First Symphony also received a mixed performance. An apt sense of awe was conjured at the beginning as the string section, barely audible, play A across seven octaves. We now know that this marks the beginning of Mahler’s lifelong, barrier-breaking exploration of the symphonic form. It feels appropriate that for a composer who believed a symphony must be like the world, the opening movement of his first symphony has the feeling of evolution and genesis. The movement was largely atmospheric although at times it lacked subtlety. The woodwind’s birdcall motifs were rather forceful which made them seem overly literal, and the overarching structure was not always clear, particularly after the repeat of the exposition.

There was an admirably raucous second movement, with some particularly gutsy playing from the lower strings in the minuet. This sense of riot could have been stronger in the overtly-parodic third movement. The first iteration of the minor-key rendering of Frère Jacques was given to a solo double bass as opposed to the section, which is accurate in terms of Mahler’s scoring, however this passage is meant to represent an overworked, exhausted musician and this was not conveyed as boldly as it could have been. The strange canon on this tune was nicely controlled but the explosions of street music lack impulsiveness.

The finale was more exciting, starting off with ferocity and purpose, and shaped better than the preceding movements. The foreshadowing of the climax was nicely tempered so as not to diminish the impact of the closing bars. The climax was suitably triumphant and impactful, as it almost unavoidably is due to the nature of orchestral writing. There could have been more drama and pause in the brief section between the two iterations of the theme. Despite this, the sheer excitement and joy of Gardner’s conducting of this passage smoothed out the kinks of this slightly uneven performance.