A combination of Russian and English masterpieces formed the fourth concert of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 110th season. Three of the pieces were written and/or performed during the Second World War, whilst the remaining piece – Prokofiev’s magnificent Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major – was composed not long after the end of the First World War, here with 41-year-old Russian Nikolai Lugansky making his debut as LSO soloist.

Nikolai Lugansky  ©  Marco Borggreve/Naïve Ambroisie
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve/Naïve Ambroisie

This was by no means the first performance this year of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes; nor will it be the last in his centenary year. The Interludes are familiar territory even for the LSO, who had performed them earlier in the year under the direction of Bernard Haitinck. This time, Gianandrea Noseda was at the helm. From the word go, Noseda held the orchestra firmly together, producing an intensely energetic sound, albeit one which worked less successfully for the opening interlude, “Dawn”, which needed a more delicate touch to give the music its natural ebb and flow. The sensation that the music’s seams weren’t perfectly sewn together diminished steadily through the following movements, though, and the ferocious final interlude, “Storm”, greatly benefited from the orchestra’s and Noseda’s verve.

A resetting of the stage gave the audience the opportunity to soak up the liveliness of Britten and to prepare for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major. If nos. 1 and 2 went down less well than he might have hoped, no. 3 was their antidote: a large-scale, carefully balanced concerto that demonstrated the virtuosity of both orchestra and pianist, its harmonies more pleasing to the concert-going public than both of its predecessors. The first movement’s gentle, almost pastoral opening soon gave way to the vigorous crescendo that heralds the piano’s entry. Lugansky’s understated confidence was palpable from the outset. It was his fingers, rather than his body movements, that did the talking as they moved nimbly across the keyboard; Lugansky himself appeared calm and at ease throughout, but nevertheless delivered the musical vitality, expressiveness and even humour (in thinking of the marching theme in the first movement in particular) demanded by the piece. The second movement – “Tema con variazoni” – almost comprises movements within a movement, so contrasting are the various sections. The changes in mood and tempo were handled superbly by Noseda and the LSO, who kept pace perfectly with Lugansky’s sensitive playing. A raucous finale, albeit one that, like the second movement, contains a period of contemplative calm, completed this most dazzling performance. Lugansky has an extraordinary gift, and his well-judged handling of the piece made it even more of a joy to listen to.

In a rather different vein, the second half of the concert opened with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, which he had written in response to the Japanese government’s commissioning various European composers (Strauss and Ibert among them) to write musical works to mark the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese dynasty. Ultimately, the score was rejected by the commissioners, and the work was premièred in New York in March 1941. As with his War Requiem, Britten’s personal beliefs are woven into the score. The very subject nature of the piece is intended to send out a powerful message – that the rage and fury of war should ultimately end in peace and rest, whether on the largest scale of the War or, inevitably, in terms of the many who fought and lost their lives. The three movements take their inspiration from the Catholic Requiem Mass, but Britten tellingly swaps the usual order of the first (Lacrymosa) and second (Dies irae) movements. Once again, Noseda’s pointed energy and the LSO’s responsive playing made for a spectacular performance: from the pained mourning of the Lacrymosa to the thunderous terror of Dies irae and the serenity of Requiem aeternam, the score’s nuances were brought out with precision, emotions fully realised.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor was written in the light of the widespread persecution of artists and intellectuals in his home country. His comments to the press at the time were that he “wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy, youth”; this symphony does anything but. The opening Largo was played broodingly, to chilling effect. In particular, flautist Adam Walker’s solos were haunting to the core. The middle Allegro and last movement (Presto) were lively enough; the LSO seemed to understand that although upbeat, there was nothing of the “spring, joy, youth” about them – Stalin was keen on such themes, and superficially, he got what he wanted with this symphony, but Shostakovich’s making these two movement almost pathetically short in comparison with the first portrays his real thoughts on Stalin’s cruel regime.

The start of the concert was hardly shaky – it was bold and strong – but musically the opening Britten did not receive an outstanding performance. The remainder of the concert, however, saw the LSO at its best, tackling a wide range of emotions, and providing world-class accompaniment to an outstanding soloist.

LSO Discovery Day on ShostakovichJulia Savage reviews the LSO, Lugansky and Noseda in a programme of Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich at the Barbican4