LSO – Mark Elder conducts Charles Ives’s Second Symphony – Kirill Gerstein plays Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto

Piano Concerto No.3 in C-minor, Op.37
Symphony No.2

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 14 April, 2019
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

With Sir Mark Elder you always get a gentlemanly concert, physically less static than Boult but of a similar ilk. This was a beautifully prepared programme, emphasising elegance of ensemble, phrasing and links, not a join or dovetail missed. Nothing demonstrative or dynamically excessive, everything pointedly in place, stylistically responsive without affectation, a fireside single malt never far away.

Sir Mark Elder during rehearsal with the London Symphony Orchestra and Kirill GersteinPhotograph: Twitter @MaxinekwokadamsNot everything, though, won over the audience. Much of Kirill Gerstein’s Beethoven – three cool curtain calls, no encore – was a conception rooted firmly in a pre-French Revolution world, polite and neat, efficiently dispatched, with good trills, but not as aspiring, involving or radically gestured as we know it can be. Nearer Mozart 1786 than Beethoven 1800. If the first movement’s developmental cadenza doesn’t shock, there’s something not quite right. The E-major Largo, following an oddly prolonged pause, fared better, though the equalised upbeat grace-notes into the opening solo’s G-major swings (and in the reprise at bar 60) momentarily unsettled. In the pedalled arpeggio washes, following those of the cadenza, Gerstein favoured a quasi-impressionistic feathering of the notes in preference to more articulated patterning. Losing definition (and pulse), the idea didn’t quite convince. More persuasive was the Finale, with a fleet sprinkling of added ornaments, and a robust closing ‘continuo’ tutti. Short maybe on Hungarianness but attentive to exchange and dynamics. Particularly effective were the A-flat octaves at bar 257, not forced through (the Argerich, Perahia way) but properly piano, decrescendo, sempre pianissimo. Favouring antiphonal violins, with (four) double basses left of stage, Elder’s replacement of modern timpani with a period pair paid sonic dividends, Nigel Thomas taking advantage of their colouristic potential, supportively hard/tight-edged in forte.

Elder’s modulated introduction to Charles Ives’s Second Symphony of 1899-1902 (revised circa 1950) made up partly for the absence of an overture or some such to open an otherwise lean value concert. Happy that he still had an audience, he assured us that it would be “an entirely pleasurable experience”, a work of “communal energy”, an “all-American Symphony of childhood, school days and growing up.” It was this and more, a five-movement patchwork divided, in practical terms, into three chapters (slow ‘introductions’ prefacing first and final allegros), written within ten years of Dvořák enthusing that the future of American music lay in its native songs. “If the Yankee”, Ives believed, “can reflect the fervency with which ‘his gospels’ were sung – the fervency of ‘Aunt Sarah’, who scrubbed her life away for her brother’s ten orphans [–] he may find there a local colour that will do all the world good” (Essays before a Sonata, 1920).

Without going for extremes, taking the score at face value, sensitive to its moderated Main Street before Broadway razzmatazz, Elder crafted a fine performance, Rebecca Gilliver’s cello in the central Adagio glowing long after it had gone. In the Finale more bass drum and a shorter barn-dance/’Bronx cheer’ at the end (Bernstein having perpetrated the longer version) would have been welcome – but the quiet gossamer silkiness of the first violins was special, and getting the two trombones to stand in the closing pages for ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’, their ffff blaze cutting through the texture, was a nice bit of Mahlerian theatre.

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