Fine Mendelssohn and Schumann from Pires, Gardiner and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Schumann: Maria João Pires (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Barbican, London, 21.1.2014 (RB)

Mendelssohn:  Overture:  The Hebrides Op 26 (‘Fingal’s Cave’)
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op 56 (‘Scottish’)

This was the first of two concerts conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner featuring familiar works by Mendelssohn and Schumann.  Sir John was joined for the Schumann concerto by the wonderful Portuguese pianist, Maria João Pires, who recently announced that she is planning to retire from the concert platform later this year.  Sir John and his soloists will be taking the works in tis pair of concerts on tour around the UK and subsequently to Paris, Lyon and Geneva.

The concert opened with the perennially popular ‘Fingal’s Cave’ where the LSO’s strings did a fantastic job in portraying the swell and undulation of the waves and the imposing, wild beauty of the various natural phenomena depicted in the music.  Occasionally, the blend of textures was not quite right with brass and woodwind a little too prominent.  However, the storm passage had a visceral, elemental quality – Gardiner was having no truck with the notion that there is anything superficial about Mendelssohn’s music – while the clarinet solo which signalled the return to calm had a soft, gleaming, translucent beauty.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto is an intensely lyrical and poetic work which requires exceptional musicianship.  Maria João Pires is one of the great exponents of the work but she had a slightly shaky start with the famous descending opening chords.  She recovered well and there was some gorgeous playing in the first movement, particularly in the middle section in A flat where Pires played with exceptional tonal beauty, ably accompanied by the LSO’s woodwind.  She did an excellent job bringing out the dreamy poetry of Eusebius, giving us infinite shades of touch and tone colour but the fire of Florestan was not quite there and some of the playing was a little cautious.  The cadenza was the best part of the movement with Pires giving us beautifully crafted lines and creating a wonderful sense of rhythmic momentum.

The opening of the Intermezzo was supremely graceful with Pires and the LSO’s cellos creating a chamber music intimacy in the ensuing dialogue.  The cultivated way in which Pires and the LSO took up and finished phrases was masterful.  The finale was a whirling dance with Pires really revving up the momentum while at the same time bringing out the fanciful elements in the score.  The coda was played with gusto, bringing the piece to a sparkling conclusion.  As an encore, Pires gave an enchanting and exquisitely phrased account of Vogel als Prophet.  I hope Ms Pires enjoys her retirement and wish her all the very best.

The violins and violas stood up to play for the performance of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony – I’m not sure what the reasons were for this but it certainly energised the performance.  The woodwind captured the plangent nobility of the slow introduction (which represents Mendelssohn’s reflections on the ruins of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh).  Gardiner adopted a characteristically quick tempo for the ensuing Allegro and the LSO did a great job in capturing the lilt and sway of the opening section.  Some of the more turbulent passages were played at white heat in an astonishing display of virtuosity.  The scherzo was again very fast and Gardiner and the LSO navigated their way seamlessly through the shifting orchestral textures and there were some well executed antiphonal sound effects from the strings.  The Adagio starts off as a song without words but is punctuated with more menacing and dramatic music – Gardiner eschewed sentimentality and brought out the contrasts in a forceful and dramatic way.  We moved into the finale without a break and the LSO gave a barnstorming performance keeping the rhythms tight and bringing enormous energy and vitality to the music.

Fabulous playing from the LSO and a great way to end a highly enjoyable concert.

Robert Beattie