Festival Music

Bergen Philharmonic

Usher Hall

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Svend McEwan-Brown

four stars

LAST year, Edward Gardner directed Elgar’s The Apostles to rave reviews in Edinburgh: perhaps this explains the cheering in the crowd on Saturday before he had conducted a note in the Usher Hall. In 2017 he appeared as principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, so perhaps it was inevitable that that English-Norwegian team would offer the most famous Norwegian piano concerto, coupled with the finest English symphony (discuss). In choosing Grieg and Elgar they could hardly be accused of provocatively original programming, but sometimes a hugely enjoyable evening of fine music-making needs no justification.

Paul Lewis was the soloist for Grieg’s concerto, an interesting choice: his extensive discography is dominated by Schubert and Beethoven – no later, nationalist composers. Before 2017, he had not performed the Grieg for 18 years. The marvellous qualities that make his Schubert so unmissable – a quiet mastery, heart and mind in balance, rigour and poetry combined – do not give Grieg’s earthier, more elemental passages the fire and abandon they demand. The quietly rapturous slow movement is another matter: it was as lovely as it could possibly be, chamber music with over 60 players.

Elgar’s First Symphony is very close to Gardner’s heart. Conducting without a score, he kept his focus on the immense journey of the piece, steering his Bergen players through the great spans of sound to reach an overwhelming closing climax whose seeds had been sown 45 minutes earlier. Impressive as this mastery of the big picture was, many pleasures of the performance lay in details. Fleeting bass clarinet solos, flute figuration just audible beneath the weight of the strings, spine-tingling muted horns and trombones at the close of the Adagio. The Norwegians made Elgar their own.