In one of the classic stories of the 19th-century virtuosi, Pablo de Sarasate refused to play the Brahms Violin Concerto on the basis that the only melody in the slow movement was given to the oboe, rather than the soloist. Times change, and Thursday night’s virtuoso soloist Janine Jansen not only seemed all too happy to perform the piece with the London Symphony Orchestra, but even went so far, after it was over, as to hand over her bouquet of flowers to the excellent oboe soloist John Anderson.
While this was a particularly gracious gesture, it was also representative of the collaborative spirit underlying the whole performance. Jansen seemed in a trance throughout, listening deeply to the orchestra when not playing; the orchestra, for their part, could hardly have been more alert, or indeed more thoroughly Brahmsian in the sound they produced, playing with extreme strength and depth that was somehow never overblown. Sir Antonio Pappano may be better known in London for his work in the opera house, but there is zero doubt that he knows precisely how Brahms’ music works, and how to extract the very finest Brahms performance from an orchestra. Maybe Brahms should have written an opera, after all.
The whole concerto glowed. Jansen was a marvel. You hardly look at her and think of Brahms, the gruff, bearded bachelor, but she projected a sense of kinship with every note she played. And she combined with the orchestra uncommonly well, together spinning a single melodic thread throughout the whole first movement, her sound crisp and songlike, the orchestra’s ever-changing – one moment they were full of the bustle and bluster of Brahms’ symphonies; the next, the strings were plucking an accompaniment with the delicacy of an acoustic guitar. Pappano jumped up and down and waved his arms about like a maniac, but somehow the resulting sound was incredibly precise. I got the impression – not always the case with the LSO under certain other conductors – that this performance had been prepared with great diligence.
It was much the same in Walton’s First Symphony: all passion and flailing on the podium, but in the service of producing something both carefully planned and stirringly realised. Pappano seemed to take the second movement’s initial instruction “With malice” very much to heart, in the finale as much as in the Scherzo: his players were brisk and fierce in both, and he seemed to goad the brass on, to great effect. After both of these movements he recoiled from the front of the podium sweating, resting on the rail at the back, arms laid out to the side, like a boxer.
The first and third movements were just as intense, too: they perfectly captured the thrilling immediacy of the opening, and as with the first movement of the Brahms, this lengthy movement was over in a flash. The third movement, full of strange lyricism, benefited from an even, deep string sound which may have resulted from his splitting the violins to either side of the front of the stage. Orchestrally, the Walton lacked the tidiness of the Brahms – I’m sure I heard the odd slip – but its force more than made up for it.
This was all the more remarkable because in essence, this concert was just a taster for a more important evening to come: Sunday’s concert sees the world première of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Tenth Symphony, an LSO commission which Pappano again conducts. We were treated to a sample bit of Maxwell Davies tonight, in the form of his Fanfare: Her Majesty’s Welcome (2012). This stirring overture also introduced a number of young musicians from the LSO On Track scheme, which specialises in giving young performers the opportunity to play alongside the orchestra’s pros. The piece, which omits the string section, is brilliantly designed for this setup, intentionally creating a joyous, raucous sound – players young and old alike performed it with verve, and again, Pappano’s vigorous conducting paid great dividends. Maxwell Davies took to the stage afterwards, and seemed rightly thrilled.
Is there some crazy way that Pappano can take over from Gergiev at the LSO when he leaves in 2015, and keep his job at the Royal Opera House? Presumably the answer is no, but it strikes me as a question worth asking. He and the LSO have something special going on.