The London Philharmonic Orchestra had quite the year in 2013, giving over the vast majority of their schedule to Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise project chronicling 20th-century music. Impressive though that accomplishment was, though, it’s refreshing to see the orchestra picking up where it left off at the end of 2012: that year finished with a remarkable series of concerts pairing established classics with pieces by more recent composers in need of championing – Beethoven with Schoenberg and Nono; Brahms with Zimmermann; Mahler with Grisey. This year, they have already paired more Mahler with a world première, and in this concert Beethoven and Bach flanked something less modern but still rather curious: Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, dating from Germany in 1939. On the podium, Vladimir Jurowski brought it together with panache, as ever.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

That said, his first contribution to the evening was decidedly podium-free. For Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto BWV 1041, Jurowski sat himself at a harpsichord and played the continuo part, seemingly leaving most of the conducting work to soloist Leonidas Kavakos. There was nothing wrong with his playing, but with his eyes appearing fixed on the score and Kavakos rather static and forward-facing (despite his experience as a conductor), the concerto lacked momentum. Kavakos played with great beauty of tone, but overall there was little real sense of purpose behind this performance – perhaps the dynamic, clear instructions Jurowski gives when in charge would have been welcome.

There were no such worries in the next piece: the Concerto funebre is a piece which demands clear, impassioned leadership, and it received it here from conductor and soloist – Kavakos once again – alike. Hartmann is one of very few German composers who stayed put during the Second World War and emerged looking respectable, and after the war he became an important figure in the country’s musical life, as much for promoting other composers as for his own music, which has continued to be overlooked. His Concerto funebre dates from 1939 and speaks of an understandably bleak outlook.

The solo violin is pitted against an orchestra of strings, and bookends the four-movement piece with a sombre Czech chorale. Though this chorale is “an expression of hope”, in Hartmann’s own words, there is little optimism overall – even at the end, the chorale has a grim postscript in the form of a dissonant shard of a chord which slowly dies away. Harmonically, Mahler is the precursor who most often comes to mind, and the occasional tortuous turns in the solo part recall the Austrian’s melodic writing as well – but it’s cut through with not-quite-tonal moments as if aghast, recoiling at the state of things.

Kavakos’ rather solemn demeanour on stage suited this piece well, as did the stern sound drawn from the string orchestra by Jurowski. Despite the unremitting bleakness of the concerto, there is a sincerity which underlies it and compels it forward, and this was captured well by the players.

So was the Eroica Symphony, totally different though it is – here, it did all it was meant to, providing a sunnier outlook for the concert’s second half. In fact, this was the strongest performance of the evening, with a terrifically driven first movement, an immaculate, affecting funeral march, and two closing movements which had a great sense of fun. The eight-strong double bass section certainly made their presence felt, lined up imposingly against the back wall – the texture was amazingly deep – and this lent a very welcome, slightly unusual hue to a too-familiar work.

I’m not convinced this programming was quite as eloquent as it was in those three remarkable concerts from 2012 – I’m not sure what story this one was telling. But it was an intriguing evening of juxtapositions all the same, and enjoyable to be able to skip through history at will.