Almost a year has passed since the London Symphony Orchestra launched their concert series featuring the four symphonies and other key orchestral works of Robert Schumann with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting.
In similar manner to their Mendelssohn cycle in 2014-16, the Schumann symphonies were performed in brilliantly programmed concerts, both at the Barbican and on tour around Europe.
Alongside Schumann, pieces by Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Beethoven were featured in the four programmes, each centered around one of the symphonies. The Second and Fourth Symphonies were heard in March 2018, with the Third and First Symphonies following in concerts over the past two weeks.
Returning from the continent, Gardiner and the LSO presented their two final programmes in London last week, concluding the cycle on Sunday with the First Symphony. In addition, the programme featured the Manfred Overture as well as Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Piotr Anderszewski as soloist.
There was an interesring chain of events leading up to the current choice of the concerto, going back all the way to the previous season. Originally, Maria João Pires was to play the Schumann concerto in one of last season’s programmes, but following her retirement from the stage, Anderszweski stepped in, with the Beethoven 1st concerto. However, he caught influenza in the middle of the tour, and Isabelle Faust joined the LSO in his stead with a luminous performance of the Schumann Violin Concerto, heard at the Barbican last March.
When the 18/19 season was announced, last Sunday’s programme was to feature Anderszewski performing the Schumann concerto. However, the programme was then changed to include the Beethoven concerto, eventually heard at the Barbican.
While the Schumann concerto would have been a treat, the Beethoven First was, in retrospect, such phenomenal experience that one could but be ever so happy with the eventual outcome of the concerto game.
For it was indeed a most illuminating performance. The opening movement, Allegro con brio, lived up to its name, being marvellously paced and upliftingly brilliant. The LSO shone with clarity, rhythmic drive and transparency with its non-vibrato sound.
In a genuinely Beethovenian manner, there were those ever-spiky accents and sudden twists in mood, all done naturally, without any exaggeration or downplay. A nice touch was added with the outstanding period timpani.
Anderszewski’s take on the solo part was fabulously articulated, with riveting flow and energy, and a keen eye on detail. Admirably supported by Gardiner and the LSO throughout, the first movement was an intriguing journey.
The Largo movement, with its sublime orchestral accompaniment featuring clarinets, bassoons and horns, alongside strings, had a charming chamber-like appeal, manifested in the seamless teamwork by Anderszewski, Gardiner and the LSO. There were splendid contributions from the LSO winds and horns, with the strings providing a beautiful, gently rocking undercurrent. In perfect accordance, Anderszewski’s solo was full of intricate detail, embedded in an ever-gracious flow.
The finale Rondo was fabulously set in motion with the solo piano, joined by full orchestra in a joyous burst of energy. Never playing it safe, Gardiner and the LSO made the most of this wonderfully brisk music, with Anderzewski’s energetic and rhythmically outstanding performance. This was Beethoven to the bone! In fact, I would not mind hearing the four other concerti with this top team in a not-too-distant future.
Preceeding the concerto, Schumann’s Byronic Manfred Overture was heard as a concert opener. Written in 1848 for a stage production based on Lord Byron’s poem, the overture is, deservedly, the most performed excerpt from Schumann’s incidental music. As a standalone piece, it becomes the very embodiment of romanticism, with its stormy contrasts and highlighted emotional appeal.
Alongside Berlioz, Schumann was the key romantic composer with ravishingly musical endorsement of that multitude of literary subjecs endorsed in his oeuvre. As a concert piece, the Manfred Overture is a mini-drama par excellence.
The overture opens with passionate tutti chords, followed by a slow passage for winds and strings, joined by brass and timpani interjections. The music gains momentum, resulting in a fully-fledged orchestral drama before resolving back into the silence.
Gardiner and the LSO endorsed the Schumannian drama with conviction, resulting in a most gripping performance. There was a carefully sparse vibrato at play for the strings, yielding to marvellous clarity. The wind parts were beautifully articulated and phrased, and the brass excelled in ominous ambience, gorgeously supported by Anthony Bedewi’s timpani.
The orchestra, apart from the low strings, was standing throughout the two Schumann pieces, a nod to the Gewandhaus traditon of Mendelssohn’s time, employed in premieres of several pieces by Schumann too.
It was indeed Mendelssohn who conducted the premiere of Schumann’s first (finishded) symphony in Leipzig in the spring of 1841. Written in January of that year, the Symphony in B flat Major is, in fact, Schumann’s second symphonic endeavour. In 1832-33 he wrote two movements for a projected Symphony in g minor, but after finishing the slow movement, he abandoned the piece.
It was not until Schumann heard Mendelssohn conduct the first public performance of Schubert’s Symphony in C Major (1824-26) in Leipzing in 1839, using a copy of the score provided by Schumann from Vienna, when he undertook the creative process leading to the composition of the Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major, subtitled Frühlings–Symphonie or Spring Symphony.
The symphony openens with a mighty fanfare for horns and trumpets, joined by the full orchestra, leading up to first agitated climax. Gorgeously delivered by the LSO brass, to a rousingly summoning effect.
The ensuing build-up leading to the Allegro molto vivace was wonderfully realized, with ever mounting tension. The allegro itself had tremendous energy enganced by admirable textural clarity. The airy flute passages, accompanied by the triangle were especially memorable.
The recapituliation of the opening fanfare, punctuatd by timpani was simply stunning. Brusting into energetic coda, the first movement was fabulous adventure.
The Larghetto second movement bears that unmistakably Schumannian aura of sadness, woven into sublime textures. Idiomatically performed by the LSO, with Gardiner’s apt pacing, it was one of the most convincing performances of this music in recent memory. The brooding trombone passage on the final bars was particularily striking.
The deliciously syncopated scherzo, with its two trios, was a tour-de-force orchestal surge, with the ever-dexterious LSO nailing it perfectly, within Gardiner’s brisk choice of tempi. The finale, in its turn, was a dazzlind study in speed, detail and riveting instrumental colour, with the light wind textures marvellously contrasted by the ardent low strings, all rooted in spendid orchestral energy.
As a joyous encore, Mendelssohn’s famous scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was heard. A special treat by Gardiner and the LSO, the performance was all one could ever wish for.
A worthy coclusion to a most inspiring two-season Schumann journey with the LSO and Gardiner. It will be ever so uplifting to revisit these performances as soon as they will be released on the prchestra’s house label, LSO Live.
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Piotr Anderszewski, piano
Robert Schumann: Manfred Overture, Op. 115 (1848)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1795)
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major, Op. 38 ”Spring Symphony” (1841)
Barbican Centre, London
Sunday 10 February 2019, 7 pm
c Jari Kallio