César Franck’s symphonic poem Le Chasseur maudit tells the grisly tale of a Count of the Rhineland, condemned to be pursued for eternity as punishment for daring to go hunting on the Sabbath. An infernal gallop into the abyss would have offered a more reliable ride through London’s gridlocked streets yesterday evening thanks to the tube strike. Those of us who plunged into the Barbican’s abyss in the nick of time enjoyed a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra that revelled in the score’s gothic horror. 

Nathalie Stutzmann
© LSO | Mark Allan

With precise left-hand gestures, Nathalie Stutzmann coaxed ripe horn calls at the opening, defying the tolling church bell. The LSO’s lower brass rasped their warning imposingly before tremolando strings and ghoulish woodwinds struck a supernatural note before the demons’ merciless chase. Berlioz came to mind more than once in the grotesque climax, where Stutzmann unleashed the orchestra, recalling both the Witches’ Sabbath from the Symphonie fantastique and Faust’s wild ride into hell. 

Demonic flames were quenched with a sublime rendition of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto by Alice Sara Ott. True, after the smiling opening tutti the piano’s initial response was testy, but immediately quelled by playing of enormous grace and delicacy. Repeated notes had precision without being hammered. Rubatos gently teased and Ott’s trills chuckled as, maintaining eye contact with both Stutzmann and the woodwinds, they made Beethoven dance – even the bassoon seemed to be en pointe. There was no lack of energy either, Nigel Thomas’ timpani volley launching the piano cadenza with brio. 

Alice Sara Ott, Nathalie Stutzmann and the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Mark Allan

After the spirited coda, Stutzmann maintained her pose like holding a breath so that Ott’s opening E major chord of the subsequent Largo felt like a gentle exhalation. Ott’s playing rippled so softly that it was akin to walking on water, barely breaking the surface, almost reluctant to let phrases go. It was balm for the soul before the kittenish fun and games of the Rondo finale, wonderfully buoyant. Ott introduced her encore sheepishly – “A piece I grew to hate” – but one whose oscillating semiquavers drew nods of instant recognition, some little bagatelle called Für Elise, deftly dispatched. 

Alice Sara Ott
© LSO | Mark Allan

Before a career change to conducting, Stutzmann was a highly regarded contralto. She is the soloist on my favourite recording of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, featured in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s bracing, sometimes abrasive, symphony cycle. I’m not sure whether Gardiner would have approved of Stutzmann’s way with Brahms’ Fourth here, but the first movement’s unhurried pacing and autumnal glow felt just right. This was an unashamedly Romantic performance, the strings’ shiny patina occasionally obscuring woodwind detail, the Andante moderato a touch soporific. But the third movement was ebullient, propelled by pugnacious timpani before Stutzmann conducted Brahms' dogged Passacaglia finale in rich, broad strokes to its emphatic conclusion.

You can watch this performance on Symphony.live