If Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s reputation as a conductor was built around Baroque composers, most notably Bach, he has frequently demonstrated familiarity with repertoire beyond such generalised circumscription. Following his highly acclaimed Mendelssohn symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra , conductor and orchestra return with a cycle devoted to Schumann. This concert at the Barbican saw the first London instalment (they played to 5* reviews in Essen and Madrid last week) of the planned four-concert cycle.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the LSO in Essen © Sven Lorenz
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the LSO in Essen
© Sven Lorenz

Their approach was an amalgamation of historically informed performance traditions with the modern orchestra. It was clear from the outset of Schumann’s Genoveva Overture that Gardiner’s aim was to introduce lyrical sensitivity to his characteristically clear-eyed robustness. While there are certainly faster and more unbuttoned performances of this colourfully Romantic score, the forward drive, replete with polished orchestral balance, engaged the listeners as tightly as the playing itself. They certainly made things look easy. If the fact that the entire orchestra save the timpani, cello and bass sections played standing up was especially congenial, the audiences soon learned – in a short lecture by the erudite conductor – that such an arrangement was conducive to enhance musical expressivity, as well as to fulfil Mendelssohn’s preference to play Schumann’s work in this manner.

Logical as his explanation was, a few minutes into the conventionally-seated performance of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été there was little doubt that bodily position is hardly the most important determinant of musicality. Gardiner’s rigorous exploration of orchestral detail introduced new contours to these settings of Théophile Gautier’s poetry. The violin harmonics towards the end of Au cimetière have rarely sounded more eerie. Enlightening also were the highlighted, yet never protruding, double bass opening of the Villanelle, and the cello line at the start of Le Spectre de la rose. Sur les lagunes sounded as a true lament. It was a textbook demonstration of what vigour and insight a conductor can bring to an orchestra. Ann Hallenberg, who blended immaculately with the LSO in her sensitive performance, despite having shaky moments in Absence, was simply superb.

In performing Schumann’s Second Symphony, Gardiner held the symphonic line superbly without sacrificing the fiery elements. The Allegro and Scherzo were driven with judicious pulse. Those who are warmed to Gardiner’s recording of this work back in the late 1990s with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique would have been surprised: while the focus on detail, rhythmic alertness, and vibrato-less strings was retained, in place of the pushing tempo and hard-edged attacks was a moulded springiness that guided the work’s flow. Perhaps the biggest change was in Gardiner’s eye for string legatos and the delicate use of timpani. Thus the Adagio was poignant and affectionate yet never effete, and the scintillating Finale vibrantly triumphant. This was no performance indulging in the manic-depressive dichotomies underlying Schumann’s psyche, but the musicality and thrill were still utterly there. Acknowledging the audiences’ enthusiasm, Gardiner and the LSO reprised the last section of the Scherzo. Under Gardiner’s leadership, the LSO have rediscovered a compelling language.