London Philharmonic Orchestra – Edward Gardner conducts Bartók’s Dance Suite & Nielsen’s Inextinguishable Symphony – James Ehnes plays William Walton’s Violin Concerto

Dance Suite
Violin Concerto in B-minor
Symphony No.4, FS76/Op.29 (The Inextinguishable)

James Ehnes (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 9 October, 2019
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

James EhnesPhotograph: Benjamin EalovegaBartók’s Dance Suite dates from 1923 and celebrates the creation of Budapest, combining towns from either side of the Danube. Perhaps unification of the previously divided Hungary was on Bartók’s mind and certainly the folk-themes were collected from all areas of the country. Dance Suite welds six numbers together giving the effect of a symphonic poem – this feature escaped some of the audience who found a pause halfway through and clapped. The LPO strings were superb. Their difficult and frequently aggressive parts were delivered excitingly; the cross-rhythms challenging the force of the large contingent of winds and percussion. Edward Gardner, using his economical and very clear technique, ensured that the LPO achieved stunning accuracy when dealing with complex rhythms.

When first hearing William Walton’s Violin Concerto with Alan Loveday as soloist and Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting, my reaction was: “this is modern music” and the impression still remains. The three-movement structure includes wide variation of mood and tempo but James Ehnes also explored the more romantic elements. A feature of his playing was the tense effect achieved in the quietest passages. In all movements Walton often anticipates a new theme by sending the calm violin line stratospherically high – a feature achieved by Ehnes subtly and skilfully. The most challenging movement is the central ‘Neapolitan’ Presto built on the rhythm of the Tarantella with a Trio that unexpectedly turns into a waltz – plenty of opportunity here for the soloist to display his remarkable technique. The scoring of the Concerto’s many lively passages is vivid and imaginative but the orchestra is also required to match the soloist’s hushed pianissimos. The most touching moments are the long quiet ending to the first movement (spoilt, again, by unwanted clapping) and the romantic theme that precedes the bright march at the end of the work. Here Ehnes used his tender tone to immensely expressive effect.

As an encore, Ehnes played the Largo from J. S. Bach’s Sonata in C (BWV1005), performed with surprising freedom of tempo which made Bach sound as if he came from the mid-nineteenth-century.

Gardner launched Carl Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony with speed and force. It begins with a maelstrom of combined themes before the music settles to a quiet anticipation of the magnificent idea that ends the work. From the meaningful and sensitive way in which this was phrased it became clear that Gardner was prepared to explore the quiet mysteries of the work in addition to exploiting its powerful drama. In the fully-scored sections of the first movement the melodic lines were always admirably clear and, in particular, just before the winsome Poco allegretto begins, the big descent to the depths by the brass made a considerable impact. Intensity was the main feature of this unhurried reading of the disturbing slow movement – superb string-playing once more – and then dramatically on to the extraordinary Finale. Just because the two sets of timpani are loud and challenging it is easy to overlook that their parts also complement the themes – this is a duet rather than a duel – and in calmer interludes the woodwinds played with much beauty of tone; typical of this very thoughtful reading. Eventually the timpani, despite their disruptive nature, were at-one with the rest of the orchestra in the final triumphant peroration.

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