LSO/John Eliot Gardiner – Walton 1 – Sunwook Kim plays Beethoven

Edward Nesbit
Parallels [UBS commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Sunwook Kim (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Clemens Schuldt [Parallels]
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 November, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaEdward Nesbit’s Parallels and William Walton’s First Symphony both underwent extensive gestation periods. Walton’s work was initially performed as its first three movements by the LSO in December 1934 before reaching its full version a year later, while the first section of Nesbit’s piece came out in 2010 as part of the LSO Panufnik Young Composers Scheme before he added a second movement by invitation.

The idea of contrast is central to Parallels (2010-12) with lyrical themes punctuated by percussive chords. Both the movements are transparently and restrainedly orchestrated. Underlying Parallels is Japanese Gagaku, traditional music in which melody is always heard below the accompaniment. Nesbit has spent some time living in Japan and Parallels echoes some characteristics of Far Eastern music – plucked strings, wailing woodwinds and incisive brass chords used as rhythmic underpinning very much as a woodblock is used in a Korean court orchestra. Under Clemens Schuldt, winner of the Donatella Flick Competition in 2010, it received an outstandingly precise and confident performance.

Sunwook Kim being congratulated by Mark Elder on taking First Prize at the 2006 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. Photograph: leedspiano.comThere may have been disappointment that Elisabeth Leonskaja – her first appearance with the LSO – and Sir Colin Davis both had to cancel. Nevertheless there followed a quite remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto from Sunwook Kim, in 2006 the youngest winner of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. The previous year he also won the 2005 Clara Haskil Competition; one can understand why since his playing has a delicacy of touch and subtlety which mirrors Haskil’s own. Launching this concerto without fuss takes a certain finesse. In this instance, with the pianist’s initial chord gently spread, the orchestra’s response heard almost from beyond, one knew that all would be well. The interplay between Kim and an LSO on peak form took us to the heart of the matter, with an acute sense of classical style rare in any pianist. Everything flowed effortlessly and yet had the ‘gift to be simple’ whilst never sounding bland. The second movement dialogue between Orpheus and the Beasts was very much con moto but still gave the illusion of hanging almost motionless in the air, and in the finale – with hard sticks on timpani and crisply brazen trumpets – was exuberantly joyful. Is John Eliot Gardiner mellowing? Was that a hint of vibrato in the strings? No matter, this was a pleasure from start to finish and a particularly successful collaboration.

Sadly, the Walton although undoubtedly exciting, was not in quite the same class. The LSO has this music in its bones and in full cry is never negligible. However, despite some superb individual contributions – notably Adam Walker’s flute solo in the slow movement and Philip Cobb’s cornet-like trumpet solo in the epilogue – the work didn’t quite culminate as it can. In part this was down to Sir John Eliot’s tempos which were consistently on the fast side, robbing the first movement of its remorseless tension (piling Pelion on Ossa sprang to mind), the ‘malicious’ scherzo of some of its venom and the finale’s fugue of its ferocious bite. However, the ‘melancholic’ Andante was transcendent in the sustained power and beauty of the strings and the sheer artistry of the solo winds.

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