Two famous composers, two rarely heard works. This concert paired Dvořák’s Cinderella of a Piano Concerto with a narrated version of the incidental music that Sibelius wrote for a 1925 Copenhagen production of The Tempest. As nifty planning goes, it was the latest evening to cement the London Philharmonic’s reputation as the orchestra with the most adventurous programming in the capital, and won a decently filled Royal Festival Hall for its efforts.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson
The Dvořák has always needed its advocates. It was rejected in the composer’s own lifetime for its supposedly unpianistic writing and for its rather chunky, unsymphonic structure. A later pianist even came to its aid by completely refashioning the solo part, until Sviatoslav Richter came along to resuscitate and argue for the original. Now Stephen Hough has taken it under his wing, and as an audience member was heard to observe, “if he thinks it’s worth it, then it must be”. Some of Dvořák’s piano writing does indeed look cramped on the page and perhaps doesn’t take advantage of all the possibilities on offer, but Hough emphasised its qualities. Long swathes of the lengthy first movement, for example, are set out as a concertante battle between forceful orchestra and lyrical piano, and Hough’s sensitive, beautifully fashioned playing persuasively won the argument against the urgent and sonorous orchestral resistance movement captained by conductor Osmo Vänskä.

The central slow movement, with all its sly sideways harmonic glances, is one of the loveliest pieces Dvořák ever wrote – it’s a shame it has been ‘trapped’ inside an otherwise seldom-aired work for much of its life. Hough and Vänskä gave it a delightful pastoral lilt and the orchestral soloists entwined some particularly enticing horn and woodwind solos around the piano. The finale brought the only miscalculations of the performance, with just a hint of rushing on Hough’s part and a rubato to the second theme that sounded more accidental than planned. But everything came together in time for a rousing conclusion. There’s much to admire in this concerto, not least Dvořák’s melodic writing, and this performance proved that in the right hands it can work very well indeed.

Sibelius’ music for The Tempest was some of the very last he completed, before he retired into a quarter century of apparent silence. As such it perhaps shows him moving into more adventurous harmonic areas than he felt he could follow through. It is occasionally heard in concert in one or both of its orchestral suites – famously promoted by Beecham – but while the full hour’s worth of incidental music has been recorded, it is rare to hear more than the odd snippet in the concert hall. All credit to Vänskä, then, who has concocted a convincing concert version that combines many of the orchestral numbers with the five songs for Ariel and a linking narration, effectively condensing The Tempest into sixty minutes.

Lilli Paasikivi was star billing as Ariel, though her short verses – some of them not ideally balanced against the power of the orchestra – made for a rather perfunctory contribution, for all the richness of her mezzo voice. It was intriguing, nonetheless, to hear familiar verses such as “Full fathom five” and “Where the bee sucks” sung in Finnish – though presumably they were originally performed in Danish in 1925. Presiding over the English words was the typically eloquent Simon Callow, who in a narrative combining story-telling with excerpts from Shakespeare’s play, effectively played the whole cast on his own, though a little more differentiation of characterisation would have been welcome.

The true star of this performance, though, was the music – from the primeval storm to the stomping Caliban, the demure Miranda to the mourning Alonso, this is prime Sibelius, revealing his mastery of character and psychology to be every bit the equal of his symphonic and illustrative prowess. True, the reality of incidental music is a preponderance of tantalisingly short numbers, yet with master Sibelian Osmo Vänskä at the helm the fascination and enjoyment of the music became the moment, enhanced by some particular sonorous and searing playing from the LPO.