London Symphony Orchestra Gives Good Account of Itself in Berlin

GermanyGermany Berlin Musikfest 2014 – Mendelssohn, Schumann, Radovan Vlatković, Timothy Jones, Angela Barnes, Jonathan Lipton (horns), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner, (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 14.9.2014 (MC)

Mendelssohn: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, concert overture, Op. 27
Schumann: Konzertstück for 4 Horns and Orchestra, Op. 86
Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107 ‘Reformation’

It’s always good to hear how a top British orchestra compares against the finest European competition. My last couple of European music festivals have included concerts by the touring Philharmonia Orchestra but it has been a couple of years since I last heard the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) play live which was at the Musikfest Berlin 2012.

Period instrument specialist Sir John Eliot Gardiner was conducting an attractive programme of three works from two incorrigible early-romantic composers, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and noticeably used a number of elements of the period performance practice for which he is noted. Gardiner, decked out in tails and white tie, conspicuously had the violins and violas play standing during the concert which only served to swamp the cello section centrally positioned on slightly raised seating. Also noticeable was the careful use of vibrato by the string section which didn’t present me with too much difficulty.

Making a spirited curtain raiser to the concert Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and  Prosperous Voyage inspired by verse from Goethe had been premièred at Berlin in 1832.  Depicting a voyage full of incident, after a short flute solo the temperature of the music heated up for a performance of real energy.

This was the first time I had ever seen a concert programme containing Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestrawhich is in accord with the Musikfest Berlin’s philosophy of giving opportunities to works that have become lesser regarded or have fallen out of the repertoire. In 1849 Schumann was motivated to compose the three movement Konzertstück as a sort of challenge to write a substantial piece for the modern valved horn and move players away from the natural horn. As well as the high strings the quartet of horn players Radovan Vlatković Timothy Jones, Angela Barnes Jonathan Lipton stood to play the Konzertstück a work that immediately revealed some exciting music. Whilst not a great fan of the horn as a solo instrument I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing in a work that must be one of the finest in the horn repertoire. Once each of the horn players had gauged their level of projection the impressive playing just glowed with expressive colour. There was playing of real gusto in the exuberant opening movement Lebhaft followed by a change of mood in the lyrical Romanze to one of calm almost child-like innocence that reminded me of late Brahms. Reserved trumpet calls heralded the closing movement Sehr lebhaft, high spirited with a distinct squally feel.

After the interval came the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107, known as the ‘Reformation’, which was premièred in 1832 at Berlin. It’s a score I haven’t heard for several years, which doesn’t surprise me as I believe that, excepting a few works, Mendelssohn’s music is currently out of fashion. In such unified orchestral playing Gardiner effortlessly tightened and lessened the tension with the players providing significant weight of sound when required. I found the playing of the Scherzo with its light and buoyant textures extremely memorable. A kind of sacred ‘song without words’ the poised Andante opened with reverential playing on the strings of a near meditative quality. The Finale, based on Martin Luther’s chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), opened to brass accompaniment and was then taken up by the orchestra with no lack of vitality, containing an unerring sense of grandeur. It was only during the final movement that I realised that Gardiner had been tinkering hiding the timpanist in the body of the orchestra virtually out of view of the audience.

On this form the LSO under Sir John Eliot Gardiner is a match for most orchestras on the international stage and must have made many new friends in Berlin with such an attractive programme of romantic German music.

Michael Cookson