The London Philharmonic under Edward Gardner play music worthy of a right royal day

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tippett, Mendelssohn, Janáček: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Sara Jakubiak (soprano), Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), London Philharmonic Choir (Artistic Director: Neville Creed), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 6.5.2023. (JR)

Edward Gardner conducts violinist Alina Ibragimova and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO

TippettSuite for the Birthday of Prince Charles
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto Op.64
JanáčekGlagolitic Mass

When planning their last concert of their current London season at least a year ago, the London Philharmonic would have had no inkling whatsoever that, in the meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth would pass away and Prince, now King, Charles would choose the very same day for his Coronation. Hastily, the opening work was changed to find a work suitable for the occasion.

When Prince Charles was born, the BBC commissioned a new work. The Corporation’s first-choice composer Benjamin Britten was unavailable and he recommended Michael Tippett, considered a riskier proposition. He took to the commission with relish, using many pre-existing elements to concoct a generally light-hearted suite of five movements, employing melodies from a Scottish hymn tune (‘Crimond’), the March from his opera The Midsummer Marriage (then still in its inception), an Irish version of the familiar ‘All Around My Hat’, then a thirteenth century English hymn and finally a mixture of his own Helston Furry Dance and the overture to his ballad opera Robin Hood. The trumpet fanfare with the descending scales resembling pealing church bells sets the tone of the grand occasion perfectly. It is all unmistakeably Tippett, especially the writing for strings, and a lot of fun. Conductor Edward Gardner described the Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles as a gem, which might be slightly too effusive.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is a staple of the concert hall and needs a fresh approach to make the seasoned listener renew his or her interest. Russian-born Alina Ibragimova’s father took up a post as principal double bass with the London Symphony Orchestra when his daughter was 10, and so now Ibragimova describes herself as Russian-British. Her purity of tone astounded, as did her impeccable intonation: no technical challenges stood in her way to a flawless performance, which garnered massive applause. It showed us, as if we didn’t know, that this work is a true gem. It all looked and sounded effortless, real beauty in the sweet, tender middle movement and a huge smile on her face throughout the gleeful final movement. Ibragimova was enjoying herself, as were we. Gardner and his orchestra accompanied with flair and sensitivity, maintaining a swift pace in the outer movements.

Just under two years after he composed his thrilling Glagolitic Mass Janáček was dead, but his thoughts had not been of death, but a celebration of the independence of Czechoslovakia and a new friendship with Kamila Stösslová: Janáček imagined getting married to his muse in a lofty cathedral, walking ceremonially down the central carpet. What could be a finer work to recall the newly crowned King and Queen walking down the aisle of Westminster Abbey earlier in the day?

A quick word on the edition of the Mass used in the concert. For years, the only version available was one published in 1928, the year after the work was first performed. In 1992 Paul Wingfield published a book on the work in which he investigated the changes which Janáček had made to his Glagolitic Mass during rehearsals. He argued a first version was more adventurous. Charles Mackerras took up the original version in 1995. This concert adopted the ‘classic’ 1928 version in its latest edition (but conceded one short passage in the ‘Svet’ which takes sopranos dangerously high), it was, more or less, the version Janáček actually wanted audiences to hear.

Edward Gardner conducts Madeleine Shaw, Sara Jakubiak, Toby Spence and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO

The performance had two undoubted stars; American soprano Sara Jakubiak (of German and Polish descent) shone with her suitably steely soprano, surely a Jenůfa in the making. The other star was the chorus, the London Philharmonic Choir, on top full-throated form. Czech diction sounded fine and – clear to my ears – rhythms and ensemble was accurate and crisp.

One sympathised with the other soloists. The tenor part is ungrateful, to say the least; Toby Spence was courageous, only occasionally was he drowned out by the full force of the orchestra. Madeleine Shaw and Matthew Rose have very little to sing, it has to be said.

The organ solo near the end is a highlight of the work and was wondrously played by Catherine Edwards. It is always a feast for the ear to hear a concert hall organ played at full pelt.

Edward Gardner is clearly a huge fan of the work and his admiration shone through the performance. It was a fitting choice of work for both the last concert of their London season (after a concert at Saffron Hall, they become the resident orchestra at Glyndebourne for the summer) and also, of course, the Coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla.

John Rhodes

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