English Music Given a Welcome Airing by Andrew Manze and the LPO
Elgar, Ireland and Walton: Piers Lane (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 11.3.2015 (AS)
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47
Ireland: Piano Concerto in E flat
Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor
Andrew Manze’s career has undergone an extraordinary transformation. During the 1990s and the early years of this century he had a fine reputation as an outstanding violinist in the field of early music and as a director of original instrument ensembles. But during the last ten years he has developed an equally high reputation as a conductor of symphonic music. Today he is internationally known in this role and has worked with such top-rated bodies as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Since last September he has been Principal Conductor of the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hannover. In the UK at least he has become well known as a champion of twentieth-century British music.
At present there is tendency on the part of London orchestral concert promoters to isolate British music by giving it occasional exposure in programmes exclusively devoted to British repertoire, featuring British artists who are well-versed in the genre and who otherwise don’t get too many opportunities to appear with the main London orchestras. Piers Lane is of course Australian, but he lives in London and is a champion of British music. Perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much, since in recent times it has been possible to hear rarely-played works by such composers as Bax and Vaughan Williams on the South Bank, and now we had the chance to hear Ireland’s Piano Concerto, which once upon a time had occasional hearings but is now seldom played.
This was Andrew Manze’s debut with the LPO, and his concert began with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, which itself is not too frequently performed these days. Manze’s approach to the work was quite bold for, using very expressive but not very precise gestures, he endeavoured to emphasise its warmth and Romantic nature. His performance was carefully and quite beautifully moulded, with strong, dramatic contrasts. This was achieved rather at the expense of precise ensemble on the part of the LPO’s strings, and there were moments when expressive fluidity became tarnished with a slightly blurred aural image. But this didn’t matter too much in the face of such a characterful performance.
It was noticeable that in Ireland’s concerto Manze changed his conducting style completely. This is a work that needs sharp rhythm at times, and this was obtained by the conductor with precise, detailed baton work. Elsewhere the orchestral part also needs a particular quality of Romantic orchestral expression peculiar to this composer: it always seems slightly sad and withdrawn – even those lively and apparently cheerful parts of the finale seem a little forced, as if the composer were putting on a brave face. Manze brought out these qualities very adroitly, and his skill in this respect matched Lane’s playing ideally.
It is difficult to think of a pianist who excels Lane in this kind of repertoire. He has a very large technique, and a beautiful quality of tone, both of which are put at the disposal of acute sensitivity to the particular demands of English Romantic music. His phrasing in the many reflective passages of Ireland’s concerto was both exquisite and warmly projected, and the virtuoso passages were ideally realised.
It was at once clear that Manze’s approach to Walton’s First Symphony would be highly energetic. Sometimes today’s conductors take the opening movement in a ruinously sedate fashion, so that the impetus and drama of the music are impaired. Not here, since Manze’s basic tempo was very lively, and he obtained a very enthusiastic, virtuoso response from the orchestra. Perhaps missing was a sense of emotional weight, of deep feelings and anguish being conveyed through an agonised creative process. The second movement was also played with much energy and brilliance, but the Presto marking was observed rather more than the additional instruction, con malizia. Those passages of introverted repose in the slow movement, marked Andante con malincolia, were well characterised by Manze, and the more impassioned climaxes were well-shaped, but in the finale it was sometimes a case again of high surface energy substituting for depth of feeling. But the two great climaxes towards were well judged, and the end of the work was effectively managed, with terrific playing from an orchestra on top of its form.