Nothing remained of the previously advertised concert except the London Symphony Orchestra itself, strings and percussion only. When a locked-down François-Xavier Roth ceded the podium to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Birmingham’s finest brought along her own selections to replace the Frenchman’s announced programme. One of the choices she selected from her shelves was a given, the other a surprise.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© London Symphony Orchestra

Second things first. It’s not that Rodion Shchedrin’s 43-minute Carmen Suite is unfamiliar – it gets plenty of airings nowadays, such as the Orchestre National de France performance that Mark Pullinger reviewed in the summer – it’s more that, notwithstanding Gražinytė-Tyla’s reputation for good taste, it isn’t a strong piece. Puzzlingly reluctant to credit Bizet by name, the Soviet composer (arranger, surely?) of this 1967 ballet rides piggy-back on a much-loved classic in order to grab his listeners. It’s cheeky but effective in the manner of Scott Bradley’s work on Tom and Jerry, but without the mirth. In his quest to personalise the music Shchedrin messes about with the French composer’s note values and infuses the score with sassy percussion effects. For a ballet (it was written for the composer’s wife to perform) its chunks are oddly bite-sized: there’s a curious lack of flow and only the fortune-telling 12th movement has sweep or scale. As a showcase for the London Symphony Orchestra’s dazzling quartet of percussionists it was a great display piece but in most respects Shchedrin’s opus is little more than a technically proficient reworking of someone else’s earworms.

LSO percussion workout
© London Symphony Orchestra

The conductor’s other choice was much safer, and the LSO string players responded graciously to the musical voice of Mieczysław Weinberg in the second of his 22 symphonies, a work she has long championed and indeed recorded on her debut release for DG. Gražinytė-Tyla has brought the Polish-born Soviet composer (like Shchedrin, a friend of Shostakovich) in from the cold periphery of the Russian repertoire to the heart of her music-making, so don’t be surprised to see Weinberg leap up the popularity charts in the next few years. If there is one failing that could prevent his esteem from burgeoning, it’s a tendency to ramble. His musical architecture is anything but concise.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the LSO at St Luke's
© London Symphony Orchestra

The opening Allegro moderato begins with a rocking ostinato under an angular balletic melody that’s strongly redolent of Prokofiev in its chromatic pathway. The sound world is instantly beguiling, not least for some delicious melodic lines spun by the solo violin, played here with remarkable sympathy by the LSO’s leader, Roman Simović. Thereafter, a long, protean movement unfolds whose arguments can be hard to track. However, the central Adagio (there are only three movements) is instantly riveting as low strings entice the listener into a forbidding dreamscape, restless and lugubrious, through which violins and violas darted like nocturnal creatures. Principal cellist Rebecca Gilliver delivered a rapt cello solo but the movement’s abiding lyricism stemmed from the double basses. It was a darkly delightful experience, supremely well conducted and played, and its magic stood in dramatic contrast to Weinberg’s meandering Allegretto finale, an elusive movement that shape-shifts at will then stops when it’s had enough of itself.

This performance was reviewed from the LSO's YouTube video stream