LPO/Gardner review – magical outing for Tippett’s ‘unplayable’ piano concerto

Three very English but three very different composers – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Michael Tippett and Edward Elgar – made up the London Philharmonic’s latest programme under Edward Gardner. The centrepiece was unquestionable: a rare but thoroughly persuasive outing for Tippett’s fluent yet entangled piano concerto of 1953-55.

It was condemned as unplayable by the soloist Julius Katchen, who walked out shortly before he was due to give the premiere. These days, especially in the hands of Steven Osborne, a champion of the work, that seems an extraordinary misjudgment about a concerto that has proved its staying power. In Osborne’s hands, the concerto was not merely playable but eloquently played. It would be hard to imagine a more convincing account than the one that, playing from the score, he conjured here.

The work’s animating spirits are Beethoven’s fourth concerto, whose lyricism and structure it echoes at several points, and Tippett’s distinctive sense of fun and fantasy. These take wing in the concerto’s lapidary scoring, in which the soloist is never confrontational or dominating. Instead, it is the concertante interplay of the soloist with groups of instruments, most strikingly with the flute, violin and celesta, that holds the attention. Osborne’s encore, an improvisation on a Keith Jarrett tune, was every bit as magical.

Coleridge-Taylor’s Solemn Prelude for orchestra, which preceded the Tippett, was a different kind of curiosity. First performed at the Three Choirs festival in 1899, the score then disappeared, so this was its London premiere, 124 years on. It is a stately piece, with the composer’s customary clarity of scoring and professionalism, but it has nothing of the orchestral daring that permeates Elgar’s first symphony, which took up the second half of the programme.

Here Gardner was in his element, in a crisply directed performance that emphasised the exploratory rather than the traditional qualities of Elgar’s symphonic writing. This symphony may have its feet in the 19th century but, even at the close, it is constantly looking forward not back. Gardner understands this duality, and the LPO responded with the commitment that is starting to characterise their partnership.