Complete Authority in Sir Mark Elder’s Elgar with the LSO

10/02/2018

Janáček, Bartók and Elgar: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 8.2.2018. (AS)

JanáčekSchluck und Jau – incidental music

Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz119

Elgar – Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55

In the last year of his life Janáček, while still at work on his opera From the House of the Dead, was persuaded to write incidental music for a satirical stage comedy Schluck und Jar, featuring two drunken characters who bore the nicknames of the work’s title. The play had originally been a failure at its first production in 1900, but the reputation of its author, Gerhart Hauptmann, had grown since then, and a new production, with Janáček’s music, was now planned. Janáček only lived to produce two brief movements, and as the conductor Mark Elder remarked in his spoken introduction, we don’t know which parts of the play are referred to in the music. But as Elder suggested, the music itself, edited for performance by the composer’s biographer Jarmil Burghauser, well deserves to be preserved and performed.

It is a good example of Janáček’s late style, with quirky, jagged rhythms, repeated little wisps of melody, pungent and imaginative orchestration (at one point four solo double-basses play four separate parts), and everything was brought vividly to life in a brilliantly played performance under Elder’s passionate direction.

Elder’s intensely committed conducting and the LSO’s virtuosic, flexible response were also very much to the fore in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and contributed greatly to the success of the performance. Francesco Piemontesi produced a very clear, precise account of the solo part, one that was strongly assertive, beautifully expressive and hyper-sensitive in the central Adagio religioso movement, and strongly responsive to the finale’s dance rhythms.

The extended slow and repeated theme that begins Elgar’s First Symphony has to be handled very carefully by the conductor if it is not to sound too heavy and pompous. Elder’s pacing in this crucial opening was skilfully contrived, and his management of the contrasting Allegro section that follows was ideal. With Elgar’s changes of pulse faithfully observed, the music seethed with passion and energy, even though the conductor’s overall approach was quite measured. As the long movement developed so did its intensity in performance, until resolution was finally and movingly achieved in its quiet, reflective ending.

Strict rhythmic control in the Allegro molto second movement was imposed by Elder, excitingly so, with hardly any relaxation in the trio section.  Then, as the music transformed itself into the Adagio movement a new sweetness of sound emerged. We are used to experiencing virtuoso playing from the LSO, but here the sheer beauty of the playing, particularly in the depth and sonority of the string sound, was quite special.

And so to the finale, whose atmospheric, portentous slow introduction was again superbly managed by Elder. His tempo for the main Allegro section was excitingly fast, and again the performance was adorned by his most sensitive response to Elgar’s indications of pulse and phrase. And so, the end of a most satisfying performance was reached in the triumphant return of the slow march-like material that opens the work. Overall it was a performance that only a greatly experienced and skilled conductor could have produced in its sense of complete authority.

Alan Sanders

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