Die schöne Melusine, Op.32
Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54
Symphony No.2 in E-flat, Op.63
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 28 January, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Elgar’s Second Symphony was the main event and not just because the LPO has given us both Symphonies within a week. At a time when our quest for national renewal has turned problematic, even toxic, it is fascinating that this music should have been proving more exportable than at any time since the passing of ‘His late Majesty King Edward VII’ to which the slow movement is often said to allude. Given the concurrent bereavements and contradictions in the composer’s personal life, Edward Gardner knows it will have been more complicated than that. So how to balance the ‘Spirit of Delight’ with the lengthening shadows, those mysterious, disintegrative elements that chime so well with our own era of uncertainty?
While following the basic lines of his Chandos recording, made with BBC forces, Gardner’s view appeared to have deepened, no doubt assisted by the richer basic sonority of his own orchestra. Opting for airier textures than was once the norm, he unfolded the symphonic narrative without undue stage management or excessive rubato. Some will have welcomed the fluency even if the main body of the first movement came across as a little too bouncy, the nocturnal development so relaxed that it risked sounding like a non-sequitur. The slow movement went better as befits this supremely accomplished score. True, the oboe’s disconsolate meandering could have done with more ‘help’ (from my seat at least). It does work best at a slightly slower tempo. As for the scherzo, not billed as such incidentally, there was a new-found willingness to push its pounding percussion crescendo into the modernist abyss. The Finale wound down with some beautifully quiescent playing, not quite defusing accumulated emotions. Never less than stylish with violins antiphonally placed and a premium on clean articulation, Gardner’s Elgar now offers something more. The players certainly found their best form as the evening progressed. No cameras or microphones present this time.
Before the interval we had various incarnations of the LPO. First up, with only four double basses, was one of Mendelssohn’s less familiar concert overtures, based on yet another water nymph miscegenation myth. Bright and efficient with a hint of period manners blunted by the position of those basses high up on the left of the stage. Next the Schumann with six (the Elgar would deploy eight). The familiar concerto, a relatively late substitution for a promised new composition from Mark Simpson, was given here in a rendering by Víkingur Ólafsson, one of the new breed of youthful DG stars. From my seat on the ‘wrong’ side of the auditorium facing a raised lid, his customarily dreamlike tone acquired a harsher, metallic ring. Phrasing seemed erratic though the orchestra accompanied with great discretion in so far as one could tell.
The mystery deepened with the unexpected intrusion of an awards ceremony. CoScan, the Confederation of Scandinavian Societies, an umbrella organisation for the main groups bringing together Nordic people resident in the UK, was presenting the pianist with, I think, its CoScan International Award. Not restricted to the arts, previously recipients have included Sandi Toksvig and Sakari Oramo. Ólafsson pronounced himself pleased at some length. After three only semi-audible speeches there was a pearlier encore – possibly an Icelandic folk melody as if reimagined by Schumann – but I really have no idea!