What an auspicious first outing for Andrew Manze with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This was a concert of important 20th century English works, a genre of which this conductor has made a speciality in recent years, which really packed a punch and boded well for future collaborations.

Andrew Manze © Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

The concert kicked off with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, one of the composer’s finest works and the first of series of extraordinary English works for string orchestra which includes the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, Tippett’s Concerto for double string orchestra and Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations. Manze found just the right forward moving tempi throughout the piece, which moved from its first to its last bar, as if in one breath. The LPO strings produced a full, lithe sound which brought out the intricacy of the orchestration very clearly.

Next up was John Ireland's much neglected Piano Concerto in E flat major from 1930, with the redoubtable Australian pianist, Piers Lane. Written in 1930, it predates the Ravel G major piano concerto, to which it has often been compared. If any English piano concerto deserves a regular place in the repertoire then this piece should be at the top of the list. Melodically and harmonically rich and superbly scored, it never fails to charm on the rare occasions it is performed in concert. And this was one of those occasions, even though Piers Lane took a while to warm up and some of the playing was a little messy in the first movement, adding to the impression of a certain of an excess of thick chordal piano writing.

The ravishing tune in the slow was beautifully brought off by pianist and orchestra in turn, with some sumptuous woodwind playing, especially from Julliette Bausor on flute. Everyone seemed on form in the lively finale, with its fanfares and catchy motifs. Hopefully this performance will encourage other soloists and conductors to champion the work.

Walton's First Symphony, which rounded off the evening was the most problematic work in the programme, not the performance of it, but from a compositional point of view. Written over four years the first three movements occupy a bleak and intense world, largely inspired by a disastrous, but passionate affair Walton was having at the time. The last movement was written three years later, when he well and truly ‘over her’ and involved in a relationship that was much more positive and trouble-free. The effect of this is that the last movement has a totally different atmosphere and its jubilant ending can seem empty, however thrilling and brilliantly written and played it is.

One sensed that Manze approached the work with this in mind. The tempo of the first movement Allegro assai was swift and consistently flowing. The unbearable tension in the development section and towards the end of the movement was controlled but still a devastating experience. I consider this movement Walton’s greatest musical achievement, showing a rawness of mood and originality of structure and texture that he was never quite able to live up to. The con malizia atmosphere of the scherzo was played with gusto, rhythmic precision and bite and was a terrifying ride.

In the Andante con maliconia, Manze adopted a fast tempo, which helped its intensity and purity of tone. The build up to the final climax echoed the intensity of the first movement at this tempo. In the finale Manze opted for more measured tempo for some passages while pushing ahead with the fugal passage and emphasising an underlying anxiety at the climax of this section helping to integrate it with the previous movements. The final Maestoso passage still seemed brazen and somewhat obvious, but the final stabbing chords were more aggressively played than usual and the final effect was ambivalent – closer akin to the apocalyptic end of Vaughan Williams Fourth than the triumph of the Sibelius Fifth. As an interpretation of a flawed masterpiece, this was pretty definitive.