This concert oozed quality. Whether or not you needed a Beethoven or Brahms fix, this one might still have tickled your fancy. First, there was the programme itself - two 19th century masterpieces, a majestic concerto from Beethoven and a joyous symphony from Brahms. Then there were the performers - Igor Levit making his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra slap bang in the middle of his much lauded Beethoven piano sonata cycle at Wigmore Hall, and Italian conductor Fabio Luisi making a welcome visit to London in a transition year which sees him finishing his six-year tenure at the Metropolitan Opera while taking up a new post at the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. What better time to seek out this healthy and classy collaboration, which completed a quality line-up.

Igor Levit © Gregor Hohenberg
Igor Levit
© Gregor Hohenberg

With his now recognisable posture, Levit crouched over the piano, nose almost touching keys, and opened Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, "Emperor", with a grand flourish. His careful attention to phrasing and shaping was clear from the outset, making sure that all the inner detail was brought out. The LSO provided sympathetic support under the expert hand of Luisi, with gritty strings and sharp brass characterising the more exuberant passages and a satisfyingly lucid wind section shining through at key moments. Luisi struck an uncannily fine balance between soloist and orchestra for the most part, although there were some quieter moments in the first movement when the piano could barely be heard. There was power and drive in the more dynamic episodes, with Levit's controlled aggression pounding with intent on the keys, and his solo passages were quite magical.  

The Adagio had Levit exhibiting delicacy and poise that was way beyond his years, and the almost hypnotic close of the slow movement into the rambunctious Finale was a most effective contrast. Levit's audacity provided a healthy bounce, with a lightness of touch merging into jokey interplay with the orchestra. This was an introspective but truly elegant performance. Maintaining his admirable dedication to Beethoven, Levit's encore was a pensive rendition of the Bagatelle in A minor, "Für Elise.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi | BALU Photography
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi | BALU Photography

After the interval, Fabio Luisi took the opportunity to really let himself go in Brahms' Symphony no. 2 in D major. He was majestic and dynamic on the podium and his enthusiasm was infectious. Velvety strings, warm and firm brass, and lyrical and airy winds all contributed. Luisi drew extra ounces of tension, excitement and sonority from the orchestra with a multitude of expressive gestures, but it was his sensitive and thoughtful shaping of the piece that was most impressive. He expertly captured the changing moods of this symphony, which, although overwhelmingly melodic and joyful, does have echoes of melancholy and reflection, so Luisi made sure that these were not lost.

There were some particularly fine moments, including an exquisite horn solo towards the end of the first movement handing over to the LSO's luscious strings, the silvery cellos at the opening of the second movement and some very fine wind ensemble work. The Adagio did, however, feel a little heavy in places, but the wonderfully polished LSO sound won the day. There are several delicate, chamber-like moments in this piece, which mostly came through, but the overall feel in the first two movements was one of gloss rather than articulation. The third movement saw a delightfully refreshing grazioso drawn out of the orchestra, with crisp, tight playing and nice accents, and the Finale was lively and spirited, both conductor and orchestra as animated as the music. Luisi controlled events masterfully, building up the tension and powering through to the thrilling climax with a triumphant flourish.