This concert by the London Philharmonic conducted by Ben Gernon paired the music of two composers whose lives were cut short in their thirties, along with a symphony from the composer who invented the form.

Ben Gernon
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Haydn's Symphony no. 30 in C major is known as the Alleluia because a theme in the first movement comes from Gregorian Chant... although one has to listen very carefully to hear it. Gernon's direction emphasized the symphony's cheerful nature. Tempos were on the swift side, making it one of the most lithe performances of it that I've encountered. There were HIP-like aspects but with ample room for the music to breathe, even as the conductor coaxed crystalline sounds from the players. The second movement Andante might have been an Andantino at Gernon's tempo, but this didn't prevent Juliette Bausor's solo flute from being anything less than lyrical. This symphony can sound like it's missing a fourth movement, as the final Tempo di Menuet sometimes leaves the listener stranded in mid-air, but this wasn't the case here. Sprightly horns opened the movement, with particularly memorable passages shared between the oboe and strings. Strategically placed accented notes provided further musical interest.

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Considering that Mendelssohn lived only to age 38, one might think that his mature compositions represent a small portion of his output. Not true; the composer was just 15 when he composed his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, but it was actually his 13th as he already had twelve string symphonies to his credit (not published until the 1970s). This symphony wastes no time out of the gate, channeling Beethoven in the sonata-form first movement. This is Mendelssohn at his meatiest, and the LPO players really dug into the notes – terrifically exciting. The Andante takes us back to a more classical style, but is certainly not academic. Here, flute, oboe and other woodwinds blended beautifully with the strings.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra woodwinds
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The Menuetto may be remindful of Schubert but it possesses plenty of Mendelssohn's individuality as well, not least in the lyrical Trio section which also conjures up a sense of mystery in the transition back to the main theme, and where Simon Carrington's timpani really delivered on the atmospherics. (Bravo to Gernon for presenting the original third movement instead of Mendelssohn's orchestration of his Octet's Scherzo, which was used in the symphony's 1829 London premiere; it doesn't fit nearly as well.) In the finale it was back to the agitato of Beethoven, contrasted with some notable pizzicato ensemble playing and finally finishing up in a blaze of C major glory. Indeed, this was a glorious performance all round.

Sandwiched between the symphonies was a pleasing rarity: the Ballade in A minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Composed in 1898 and rooted firmly in the Romantic tradition, it is a well-crafted piece consisting of two contrasting themes that are presented in a straightforward ABABA form. Introduced by stentorian brass, the oft-repeated first theme skirts dangerously close to becoming repetitious, but it's saved by the beautifully lyrical second theme that also has a heartwarmingly yearning quality. Played as it was here by the LPO musicians, it sounded creamy and dreamy, which is the highest form of compliment for music of this kind.

Concluding on a somewhat negative production note, the strobe "mood-lighting" that bathed the LPO players in hues of putrid purples and greens came across as a poor imitation of a rock concert. The whole concept needs a rethink.


This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Marquee TV

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