London Philharmonic/Edward Gardner with Johan Dalene

Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26

Violin Concerto in D-minor, Op.47

Symphony No.1 in C-minor, Op.68

Johan Dalene (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 27 September, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mendelssohn can seem so familiar until you hear a work like the Hebrides Overture for the umpteenth time coming up as fresh and wind-blown as the day the composer sailed over to the island of Staffa, with its extraordinary watery cathedral nave. You wonder whether Debussy, in ‘Voiles’ (piano Préludes) or La mer, appreciated Mendelssohn’s elemental evocation of depth, ambiguous colours, force and fragility. The London Phulharmonic and its principal conductor Edward Gardner certainly presented this tone-poem in all its impressionist glory, with plenty of space and a notably free take on the predominant Allegro moderato tempo direction, blowing up quite a Hebridean storm towards the end. The distant Scottish melodies from the LPO’s wonderful woodwind sounded numinously forlorn, while Gardner’s path through the work reminded us how tensile Mendelssohn’s light touch is.

Johan Dalene’s artistry is quite an ear-opener. His stage manner is unfussy and grounded, his virtuosity illuminates the music with infectious directness, he flatters and is flattered by conductor and orchestra, his romantic style persuades rather than imposes, and there is a fierce intelligence and imagination at work. Just the gradual assertion of soloist identity at the opening of the Sibelius, which steers clear of full disclosure, was all you need to grasp the composer’s endlessly shifting advances and retreats in a work that hedges its bets between Symphony, Concerto and chamber music. Dalene was a natural in the cadential volatility that defines the first movement, yielding to the moments of lyrical commitment in music that seems to thrive on self-effacement; then his sumptuous tone based on a voluptuous G-string erupted in splendor in the climax to the Adagio, the movement closing with Dalene’s substantial pianissimo, somehow both penetrating and on the edge of audibility; and he was magnificent at the Concerto’s Finale, perhaps Sibelius’s greatest, most original destination. Gardner and Dalene curled round each other in an uncanny display of mutual appreciation and the LPO’s playing was as subtle and responsive as you could wish for. There was an encore, Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice, unabashed, dazzling virtuosity.

Five days earlier Gardner and the LPO had delivered a deeply satisfying Mahler 2, a winning combination of cool hand, warm heart and spacious timing. In Brahms’s Symphony No.1, you appreciated the clarity with which Gardner steered Brahms’s mighty opening portal into the work as it bends and adapts without losing its identity, and knows how Brahms’s big public music, like Beethoven’s, depends on big gestures quickly understood. If Gardner had relaxed and breathed a bit more, the trajectory from mighty C-minor conflict to victorious C-major triumph would have been a touch more approachable. It was the nearest I’ve heard Gardner get to not seeing the wood for the trees. The two inner movements worked well, projecting Brahms’s genius for suggestive ambiguity – is one a serenade? the other an intermezzo? – with the LPO strings at their supple best and the woodwind fielding caressing romantic yearnings.

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