Think “romantic violin concerto” and your first association is likely to be an extrovert showpiece, a vehicle for a superstar instrumentalist to strut their stuff. That makes Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto the outlier from the pack. Dodecaphonic it may be, but it’s a deeply romantic work and a massively introspective one, an unflinching exposure of private grief.

I have never heard a violin concerto played quite like this. With the London Symphony Orchestra under the watchful eye of Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust was almost completely withdrawn into herself, yet opening a window into a raging torrent of emotions – I had to suppress feeling voyeurish at intruding on grief in such a way. This is an extreme work for a violinist, not least because it’s half an hour of music in which the solo violin is hardly ever silent. It’s technically challenging, for sure – there are fast runs, double and triple stops aplenty – but this work isn’t about the show, it’s about putting across the composer’s memory (the dedication famously, is “to the memory of an Angel”, the much beloved Manon Gropius, who died of polio at 18).

Isabelle Faust © Molina Visuals
Isabelle Faust
© Molina Visuals

Faust didn’t create a big, lush tone, but she delivered purity and exceptional articulation: here was a sound to which your ears were drawn, magnetically. For much of this concerto, the orchestra is very much the junior partner, but the LSO had its big moments, especially in the second movement, starting with a giant, imposing chord reminiscent of the critical points in Wozzeck. The orchestral interjections between the violin phrases were exciting, the sound coming across in powerful waves and then returning to calm. The ethereal violin ending, followed by a sustained chord with the brightest of orchestral timbres, was breathtaking.

All four works in this concert were written within a year or two of their composer’s death – albeit at very different ages. Just a few months after completing the Violin Concerto, Berg died, aged 50, after a sudden illness. Elliott Carter was more than twice that age – 103 – when he wrote Instances, an eight-minute work which he described as “a series of short interrelated episodes of varying character”. There’s plenty of humour in the piece, but outside an interesting vibraphone part and some beautiful timbre from trumpet, trombone and the last passage from the strings, I felt rather as if I was listening to an elaborate private joke between musicians.

That’s not a complaint that could be raised about Janáček’s overture to his opera From the House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s experience in a Siberian prison camp, where the music is very serious indeed, a powerful main theme handed around the different instrument groups, which the LSO played with vigour. It made for an exciting curtain-raiser even if the accuracy wasn’t always there. An important part is given to chains, used as a percussion instrument, which were highly evocative of the labour camp but not always perfectly in time.

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra should be used as an antidote for anyone who believes that 20th-century music is inaccessible: each of its five movements is distinctive and exciting in its different mood, but none requires years of study of musical form to be appreciated. It’s music of infinite variety: the first movement started with the burnished copper of dark string sound, moved to an imposing brass entry, took us through terrifying outbursts on the high strings to an exciting middle section marked by a gorgeous oboe solo, with the brass returning for a wonderful fanfare. The second movement is an unusual and fascinating piece of orchestration: dubbed the “Game of couples”, pairs of woodwind instruments play in different intervals and in different rhythms, bouncing off each other with great humour. There was eeriness in the third movement elegy and a Hollywood-like big string theme, there’s fairground fun with the tuba in the fourth as well as romantic string stuff introduced by harp arpeggios. The final movement is a splendid gallop of helter skelter madness.

Thoroughly enjoyable as this was, it still felt like something of a work in progress for the LSO: for every brilliant passage that worked perfectly, there was one that was missing that last 10% of timing perfection or expressive articulation to keep the thrill knob turned up to maximum. This is a work that I want to see again when Rattle has had more time to bed it into their repertoire, and while this concert had its imperfections, I can’t fault it as a great choice of programme to show off what the early 20th century has to offer.