Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO / Gardner @ Royal Festival Hall, London

1 October 2021

Another helping of Edward Gardner at the Royal Festival Hall.

Edward Gardner

Edward Gardner (Photo: Mark Allan)

Billed as ‘A Fantastic Symphony’, this concert under the orchestra’s recently appointed principal conductor, Edward Gardner, consisted of three works, all very different in form and substance. Lili Boulanger’s shimmering D’un matin de printemps (On a morning in spring) opened the evening and was given a beautifully sculpted performance, with filigree strings evoking images of a dewy field, as the sun gradually rises over the horizon. It’s a mini masterpiece. Whenever we hear one of her works, we can’t help thinking what might have been, given she died so tragically young at the age of 25. She left a catalogue of remarkable compositions. One of our enterprising opera companies, or colleges, should stage her mini-opera, Faust et Hélène, for which she won the Prix de Rome in 1913 – it’s 30 minutes of intense, music drama and demands to be heard (and seen).

Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto (1968-70) inhabits the other end of the musical spectrum. In a sense this remarkable work was ‘coming home’, as the world premiere took place at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970, performed by the work’s dedicatee, Mstilav Rostropovich. Fiendishly difficult, it held no terrors for the German-French cellist, Nicolas Altstaedt. One of the world’s finest exponents of this complex work, he dispatched the demanding part not only with technical virtuosity, but also with élan, and an innate understanding of the Polish composer’s very personal idiom. Gardner kept a firm grip on proceedings – a particular challenge for any conductor given Lutosławski often dispenses with bar-lines, so individual players play without reference to a beat or what their colleagues are doing. For most of the time Gardner’s role was more of a coordinator than time beater, signalling solo performers or groups of instrumentalists when to start and stop. 

This manner of composition, which is often referred to as ‘controlled aleatoricism’, allows the composer to write complex textures that are not possible with standard musical notation. The results were electrifying, and it’s testament to the skill and dexterity of the London Philharmonic Orchestra players that they met the huge demands required of them head on and with confidence. 

“…a beautifully sculpted performance, with filigree strings evoking images of a dewy field…”

After the interval we were treated to an energetic performance of Berlioz’ beautiful, madcap Symphonie Fantastique. This five movement orchestral extravaganza was revelatory when it was written in 1830 – and proved to be a decisive moment in the history of musical Romanticism, bringing Romanticism into the concert hall for the first time. Berlioz dares to use ‘theatrical’ instrumental effects that up until then were the reserve of the opera house. The use of an offstage oboe and bells, chords on four timpani (requiring four players), notated glissandi – these had not been heard in the concert hall before, so not for the first, or last, time in his career – Berlioz was ahead of the curve. 

Of course, programmatic music wasn’t new. Beethoven had paved the way with his Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, but Berlioz took this idea to another level. Each of the five movements of his Symphonie Fantastique depict a specific event, taking us on a kaleidoscopic musical odyssey from tranquil beginnings, ‘Rêveries, Passions (Daydreams, Passions)’ to a hell for leather ride into the abyss, ‘Songe d’une nuit du sabbat’ (Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath). Seen through the eyes of our unnamed, lovelorn protagonist, we witness his descent into madness as Berlioz’ increasingly nightmarish journey unravels.

Gardner and his players seemed more at ease in the deranged final two movements, than the more reflective ones. The third, ‘Scène aux champs’ (Scene in the country), tended to meander, although there were brilliant solos from Sue Böhling (Cor Anglais) and Alice Munday (Offstage Oboe). Yet when everything coalesced, in a hair raising ‘Marche au supplice ‘(March to the Scaffold)’ for example, the results were electrifying. 

The final, diabolical ride was edge of the seat stuff with all sections of the LPO playing out of their skins, and they were rewarded with a standing ovation. A couple of niggles aside, this was another impressive evening, and bodes well for Gardner’s term at the helm.

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