Walton’s Viola Concerto was written for Lionel Tertis, who initially rejected the score. However, Paul Hindemith admired it enough to give the premiere, and Tertis later played it often. Thus it remains a rare sighting on programmes not due to its calibre, but to the scarcity of world-class viola players... or of concert managements willing to take a chance rather than play safe. Step up the London Symphony Orchestra and its Artist Portrait series, and incumbent Antoine Tamestit.

Antoine Tamestit and the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Walton’s first movement was captivating from its lyrical opening bars, shared between viola and Juliana Koch’s plangent oboe, through to its quasi-cadenza with tremolo strings. In the two dramatic orchestral outbursts, the LSO reminded us how virtuosic they can be in Walton. There was more effervescence from them in the Scherzo, with the diamantine precision called for in its molto preciso marking. Tamestit was brilliantly engaging in the dancing syncopations and double-stoppings of his demanding solos. Walton is one of the few composers who can write music which is somehow profound and playful, and conductor Robin Ticciati seemed to embody that even in his gestures.

He directed the complex finale with a sure sense of where the music was going. In the wonderful epilogue, Tamestit’s recall of earlier material was replete with nostalgia, and in the long bittersweet envoi the vocal timbre of his sound became deeply elegiac. Did even the penitent Tertis ever play it this well? Tamestit takes his call with his viola held up before him, as if to say, “now you know what poetry lies in here”. And only rarely does one think in the interval “I could listen to that all over again”.

But no, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony was on the programme, and we were soon lulled by the alternating fall and rise of its first theme and settled in for the journey. Ticciati recorded a much admired Brahms Symphony cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and knows all the tricky corners of this score. Better still he sees the end in the beginning and found a line through the whole piece, that foregrounded the symphonic logic within and between movements. Pacing and playing added up to quite a driven account, nothing if not exciting.

Of course the LSO is not a chamber orchestra and the Barbican has its challenges, and some of the score sounded too loud. (I was in a prime seat, and might have been glad of such dynamics in my days at the top of the auditorium). The first movement varies between p and f, with only a couple of emphatic ff’s at climaxes. But with a brass contingent ranged along the back of the platform, the familiar sledgehammer entries were back to remind concertgoers what they had not missed in the pandemic! Still the interpretation carried us along, and there was no sense of routine in this very familiar work.

As the Bard says at the end of a Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Give me your hands, if we be friends

And Robin shall restore amends

Robin Ticciati has something Puck-like and magical in his platform manner, and when we had duly applauded, amends – though hardly needed – were restored by an enchanting encore of Dvořák’s Legend in B flat minor, Op.59 no.10.