The London Philharmonic Orchestra is at the top of its game.
In typical LPO fashion, this was a bold programme – pairing Composer in Residence Brett Dean’s Viola Concerto with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D, the ‘Titan’, by way of Nielsen’s seldom performed Helios Overture, which opened the programme. Why the Danish composer’s iridescent evocation of a Greek dawn and sunset isn’t heard more often is something of a mystery. It’s a 12 minute orchestral gem, suffused with warmth and painted with stunning musical images, brilliantly scored, and here given an exemplary performance by all sections of the LPO under Finnish conductor, Hannu Lintu’s experienced baton. It recalled the final section of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, which it predates by nine years, and is on a par with the French composer’s similarly expressive musical representation of dawn.
Dean’s Viola Concerto dates from 2004, and given this is his chosen instrument, his understanding of, and affinity with, the viola is not surprisingly second to none. The two main movements, ‘Pursuit’ and ‘Veiled and Mysterious’ are preceded by a shorter, introductory one entitled ‘Fragment’, which introduces some of the piece’s main motives and instrumental colours. Dean’s sound world relies heavily on a kaleidoscopic array of percussion, which provides the soloist with a multilayered backdrop – here the excellent Lawrence Power.
“Why the Danish composer’s iridescent evocation of a Greek dawn and sunset isn’t heard more often is something of a mystery”
Technically, the work is challenging, requiring the soloist to utilise the viola’s full range of colours and range, demanding digital dexterity throughout. Power not only sounded alluring in the high, floating cantilena in this opening flurry, but went on to make the jagged virtuosity and rhythmic edginess of the middle movement sound assured and committed. After the stillness which opens the third movement, the soloist once again embarks on a musical journey of heightened excitement, until accompanied by the weaving lines of oboe and cor anglais, draws the concerto to its peaceful conclusion. With Lintu ensuring a perfect balance between orchestra and soloist, and Power mining the work’s emotion and power, Dean’s highly individual and captivating musical voice came across with unfettered energy.
Can it really be two years since we least heard a Mahler symphony live in the concert hall? It was certainly pre-pandemic, and while concerts have been given in some shape and form since last summer’s partial opening up, Mahler’s symphonies have been conspicuous by their absence. The most obvious reason for this is the sheer size of the orchestra required to perform them, yet here we were, at last, with a performance of Mahler’s first symphony, which under Lintu’s impassioned direction more than lived up to its ‘titanic’ reputation.
From the very start, the LPO strings shimmered, while the offstage horns got the pulses racing with their muted fanfares. Lintu paced each of the four movements faultlessly and was rewarded with exceptional playing from every section of the LPO. The second movement marked ‘Kräftig bewegt (moving strongly)’ had tremendous guts and drive, with the ländler having an almost demonic edge to it. The funeral march which opens the third got off to an eerie start thanks to double bassist, Kevin Rundell’s glacial other-worldly playing, while Lintu brought us crashing into the final movement with ear-splitting gusto. Building emphatically to its life-affirming conclusion, the LPO played like lions, with exemplary contributions from the brass. Having been starved of Mahler for so long, it’s no surprise that the audience gave the players and conductor a huge and heartfelt ovation at the close.