Wednesday evening's concert was the last in a series of three given by the LSO and Bernard Haitink. With the strings absent, the concert began with Stephen Stucky's arrangement of Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a rearrangement, in the words of Stucky, “regarded through the lens of the 300 intervening years”. The profoundly downcast march that opens the work remains largely unchanged, and the LSO brass displayed exemplary breath control over Purcell's broad melody. The work follows a simple ternary structure (ABA), the march bookending an anxious reworking of the funeral anthem In the midst of life we are in death, the orchestration augmented by a haunting combination of piano, bells and harp, with the melody in the brass and wind drifting in and out of focus and tonality. What should feel like a ghostly apparition in between the stately and imposing marches was largely ineffective as Haitink's reserved tempo produced a laboured effect when lightness and contrast were called for.

Imogen Cooper © Sussie Ahlburg
Imogen Cooper
© Sussie Ahlburg
This steadiness and caution was also apparent in the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major (chronologically his second); not only Allegro but Allegro con brio, it was almost entirely absent of vigour or spirit. This is a piece with the confidence and audacity of youth, yet it felt tired. Beethoven uses trumpets and drums with a congenial militaristic tone reminiscent of Mozart, and this concerto should have a light, Mozartian air, with the strings gently generating momentum and drive, propelling the music along. The orchestral introduction, largely constructed out of arpeggio figures, plodded along and the movement never really took off after that. Imogen Cooper infused her solo line with passion and contrast and the cadenza (the longest and most dramatic of Beethoven's three) was a highlight but the sudden shift in intensity once Cooper was in full control lent a slightly disjointed effect.

The slow movement was played with delicacy with wonderful clarinet playing from Andrew Marriner. The pace livened for the final movement, a witty Rondo infused with a few knowing hints at the fashionable, percussive 'Turkish' style with devilish main theme, but the performance overall still felt a little lethargic.

Brahms' Symphony no. 1 in C minor, a work that was at least 14 years in gestation, was more suited to Haitink’s measured approach. The relentless opening timpani strikes set against the rising, off-beat melody in the strings were impactful and tautly controlled. On the whole, the broad tempo worked and gave an air of majesty to the first movement, however, the repeated minor-key horn call lost some of its anxious energy and edginess. The calmer, inner movements were far more successful, the LSO players luxuriated in Brahms’ rich string writing, and Haitink drew a wonderful balance between the sections. Leader Roman Simovic’s solo was particularly captivating. The third movement was also wonderfully played, with the brisk changes in mood from the poignant clarinet melody to the more tumultuous development felt entirely natural.

The finale was again more incoherent. The opening lacked a sense of mystery, the first iteration of the chorale that returns in the coda, and the famous horn melody both felt too pronounced, and consequently there wasn’t enough contrast as the movement developed. Most average readings of this work can be turned around if the blazing apotheosis is delivered with enough gusto and impact, and this performance did at least almost succeed on that front, the LSO brass sounding particularly rich. Overall, despite what should have been a barnstorming programme, the evening felt a little too routine and cautious.

***11