To the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, with high hopes, for the third concert in the London Philharmonic’s 2019/20 winter residency. Entitled “a sea change”, it consisted of a mixed programme of orchestral standards with two of Britain’s most promising musicians in the leading roles. I can only partly see the logic in the title. Yes, we began with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture but the other two works had no discernible nautical flavour. Perhaps it referred to the arrival on the scene of two young protagonists – or was it just that the other concerts in the series had titles? Perhaps it is human nature firstly to create things, but secondly, and in very short order, to give them titles. Where did this habit spring from? Genesis Ch. 1, v. 5 says “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” But, you say, artist’s works are often “untitled” and pieces of music are just numbered. Audiences and critics are, however, very uncomfortable with this. Thus we have The Night Watch, The Mona Lisa, and The Laughing Cavalier and the Moonlight Sonata. But I digress……….
Our conductor, Thomas Blunt, is a conductor known to MAE, as he was in the pit for the recent flawed, but musically enjoyable, Glyndebourne Tour production of Rigoletto (see Monday 14th October 2019). He was also, until recently, the LPO’s Assistant Conductor. ‘Cello* soloist Laura van der Heijden, now 22, became well known to the general public (or at least those with an interest in classical music) when she won the BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 15 in 2012. It is (I’m told) difficult when one has such a major success at such a young age. Laura seems very sensibly to have decided not to rush things as far as her musical career is concerned. Whilst still performing in a number of prestigious concerts she has recently completed a music degree at St. John’s College, Cambridge which I’m sure will give her an even greater understanding of the music she plays.
So, were these expectations fulfilled? Well, only in part. The Hebrides Overture (retitled Fingal’s Cave by publishers Breitkopf and Hartel the year after first publication) was certainly a success, with Blunt directing the LPO, led by sub-leader Vesselin Gellev (welcome back – we’ve missed you), into a pleasing sea-like swell effect in the introduction and powerful yet crisp storm scenes. I thought the performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major was rather too polite and understated. A quote above Laura’s biography in the programme said that the beauty of her playing “lies in the fact that she has a wonderful expressivity but never, ever overdoes it.” I’m afraid I still remember a scintillating performance of this work at the English Haydn Festival at Bridgnorth in 2007, with Stephen Isserlis as soloist. I’ve just located Antony Hodgson’s review of this on the ClassicalSource website. He was equally impressed with the soloist’s “brilliant and spectacularly accurate” reading, and the “tremendous tour de force” of the finale. It’s all a matter of taste I suppose. Perhaps van der Heijden (no relation to Papa H as far as I know) and the LPO’s rendition may have been more in keeping with practice at the Esterhazy court in the 1760s, but I’m afraid (to anthropomorphise) Laura’s 17th century Ruggieri ‘cello must have felt like a fast car being driven with its handbrake still on. She may need to “overdo” it a little more on occasion.
After the interval we heard Brahms’ great fourth symphony. The first two movements were again disappointing. Here Blunt seemed to have made little interpretative impression on the LPO at rehearsal and they seemed to be merely going through motions of a piece they must know well. In the allegro third movement everything changed, and I’m not talking just about the speed. Our conductor at last began to make his mark on the work and this continued with the sweeping strings of the finale. As a result the audience (worryingly not as numerous as usual) gave conductor and orchestra an ovation, but in truth it was a curate’s egg of a concert. I do wonder whether guest conductors and soloists with the LPO sometimes get enough rehearsal time with the orchestra to show off their skills to best advantage. (***)
(*Much debate with Mrs. MAE, who kindly proof reads these reviews, as to whether contractions, such as ‘cello, need a capital at the start of a sentence. She, and internet style guides, thinks they should have one. So be it. As to whether ‘cello (a contraction of violoncello) should have an apostrophe, one of these style guides says that only “an old fuddy-duddy” would put one. In that case, guilty as charged.)