London Philharmonic Orchestra, Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Jaap van Zweden (conductor)
Royal Festival Hall, London, 9 November 2015
The London Philharmonic is the city’s finest Beethoven orchestra just now, and they burnished those credentials on Wednesday with a performance of the Seventh Symphony that never sacrificed structural rigour for dancing energy. Playing at near full strength, with numbers that would suffice for the symphonies of Bruckner composed three-quarters of a century later, they boasted a lean and focused string section, brass that made their presence felt at Beethoven’s explosive climaxes but could otherwise be relied upon to retain power in reserve, and a truly outstanding wind section. All the principals made telling contributions, but Claire Wickes, guesting as principal flute, drew the ear with an exceptional range of sensitively deployed colours from a pale, almost bleached tone for the second-movement Allegretto to a wooden, piccolo-like piping for the finale.
The conductor Jaap van Zweden has his own, clear ideas about how this music should sound, beholden neither to the period nostrums embraced more enthusiastically by the LPO’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, nor in hock to the grand old traditions once embodied by the Royal Concertgebouw of which van Zweden was once leader. Nurturing a more full-bodied centre to the sound than Markus Stenz had secured a few weeks back in First Symphony – and rightly so, for Beethoven’s orchestral writing had undergone a sea-change in the intervening decade – he nevertheless encouraged the kind of vibrato-free, pure tone that made the second-movement Allegretto a chilling, at times disembodied experience, in which the wind principals passed Beethoven’s sad theme between them like a wreath at the grave of a man of power, with a grief dignified by van Zweden’s insistence on a strict tempo. Perhaps the finale was a little hard-driven – when he sets a tempo he means to stick to it – but it made the logical conclusion to a reading of compelling and uncluttered sense.
So clear a sense of purpose was harder to discern, at least on a first listening, in the premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Second Violin Concerto. Once the wild child of new Finnish music, Lindberg has throughout his career produced orchestral showstoppers such as Kraft, Aura and Cantigas, which derive their terrific energy from short motifs more rhythmic than lyric in character, and with a Beethovenian economy and ingenuity. Perhaps inevitably a solo violin makes particular demands on longer singing lines, which Lindberg has in any case satisfied over recent years with other concertos for piano and cello, and Seht die Sonne, a lushly scored paean to the gone-but-not-forgotten age of German Romanticism. Even so, his colonisation over the years of the wide open spaces of American minimalism could hardly have been anticipated in those earlier works, any more than his revival here of the still-reliable, three-movement concerto form, and a solo part retro-fitted with some sparkling pizzicato writing as well as many soaring, rhapsodic lines. There seemed little in the technical or harmonic vocabulary that Sibelius would not have recognised – just as Lindberg’s concertante writing for piano is becoming comfortable with Rachmaninov – though in this confident premiere Frank Peter Zimmermann made it look easier to bring off than Sibelius’s pyrotechnics.
Perhaps a scent of Romantic revival was hanging in the air after the concert’s overture, a concert piece on Cyrano de Bergerac written by van Zweden’s Dutch countryman Johan Wagenaar in 1905, and shaped with passionate advocacy by the conductor without ever dispelling a sense that we might as well have had the Don Juan by Strauss which was Wagenaar’s all-too-obvious model.