You wait years for a London orchestra to programme an Enescu symphony and then two come along within a single concert series. Admittedly we have to wait until December for the next, No.3, but for now the Romanian composer’s First was the closing work in the latest of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2020 Vision series, which matches works from each year of the current century so far with examples from 100 and 200 years ago. 1905 was a bumper year, providing anything from the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Debussy’s La Mer to Strauss’s Salome and Mahler’s Seventh Symphony as candidates for the slot, so all credit to Osmo Vänskä for going off-piste and programming the first of George Enescu’s three acknowledged symphonies (I see that he is committed enough to be repeating it with his Minnesota Orchestra later in the season).

Osmo Vänskä conducts the LPO
© Sisi Burn

The symphony is a compact work of three movements, but its virtuoso treatment of a hard-worked orchestra packs a lot into barely half an hour. It sounds very much of its period, but also barely like any other composer, even if hints of Wagnerism infuse the luscious slow movement and the cyclic form recalls that of César Franck. Vänskä certainly seems to have taken its boldness and idiosyncrasies to heart, and while the playing from the orchestra – particularly from solo wind – was generally impressive, another rehearsal session might not have gone amiss to get this non-repertoire music more comprehensively into the players’ bones.

The same caveat applied to the 21st-century representative in the programme, Penderecki’s Chaconne in memory of John Paul II of 2005, where the string playing wasn’t always as firmly together as one would have liked. One may rue the day that Penderecki abandoned the modernism that characterised his signature work in the 60s and 70s, but this rather indulgent miniature set of string-orchestra variations on a Baroquish theme revealed a sincerity and emotional pull of its own.

Jeremy Denk and the LPO
© Sisi Burn

The concert had opened with a performance of a key work from 1805, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. In the opening movement, the extensive rubato of soloist Jeremy Denk and firm rhythmic direction of Vänskä and his orchestra created a rather intriguing tension between freedom and control, a reminder that the etymology of ‘concerto’ has elements of conflict. This ‘stand-off’ came to the fore in the central Andante con moto where piano and orchestra alternate with pleading and conciliatory phrases: Denk’s playing here was particularly seductive and the orchestral chording pristine and of real substance. The finale provided the required resolution, and was taken at quite a lick, with plenty of bite to the rhythms (Vänskä employed a large string section), yet also refinement. Denk added elements of both delicacy and wit to the mix and then quashed any remaining sense of pomposity in an encore of a camped-up, and vamped-up, take on Wagner’s Tannhäuser Pilgrim’s Chorus.