An interesting concert, with a central European folk-dance theme, found Sir John Eliot Gardiner stepping into some unfamiliar territory with the London Symphony Orchestra, with mixed results. The Dance Suite by Bartók, which opened the evening, was written in 1923 to a commission from the City of Budapest and first performed in 1923 to great acclaim. It has remained one of the few fully mature compositions for large orchestra Bartók produced and, alongside his Concerto for Orchestra, it remains an enduring contribution to the concert hall repertoire. In performance it needs a sure hand on the stop–start folk material to create a satisfying structural whole. Its dance rhythms need to bounce and the slow sections brood, while all this should be held together by an organic use of rubato. The undefinable ‘flow’ required was absent from this performance. The dancers fell flat on their faces and the mysterious slower music seemed dull. One couldn’t fault the playing, but Gardiner's inflexible approach just didn’t get under skin of the piece.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the LSO
© London Symphony Orchestra

He was more successful in Ligeti's Concert Românesc, composed in the early 1950s, but rejected by the Communist authorities for being too modern, only then to resurface and get a first performance in 1971. It is another folk-inspired work very much in debt to Bartók and, even more so, Kodály. Its Romanian folk material is used in a lively and colourful way. It is sometimes possible to see the mature composer in the layered orchestration and in the precision of its rhythmic contours. The four brief movements were well characterised, with some alluring woodwind playing, a feature of the whole performance. The brass came into their own, and were clearly enjoying themselves, in the lively fourth movement. A worthwhile chance to hear an entertaining and accomplished work, played impeccably here.

Gardiner was more on home soil with the Haydn's Symphony no. 104 in D major, which rounded off the concert. One of the great achievements of symphonic writing in the Classical period, it is the last and most popular of the composer's works in the form. The slimmed-down string section helped produce a feeling of lightness and definition. Gardiner's choice of tempi was quite conservative for this master of authenticity, known for challenging the overblown romanticised approach to the classical repertoire. The opening Allegro was unexpectedly expansive, with the emphasis being put on the long and intense development section. The Andante also settled on a middle of the road pace which allowed the innocence of its main theme to register and the overall of complexity of the movement to be revealed. The Minuet was quite swift, but somewhat lacking in charm, apart from in its ravishing Trio section. The finale, with its folksy drone base, could have benefited from a little more fire and a faster tempo. 

This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV video stream