What qualities make for a good storyteller? Someone with a captivating voice to draw in listeners. Someone who makes eye contact. Someone who brings a story alive through vivid characterisation, be it humour, a hushed voice, an hypnotic phrase. It helps to have an interesting story to tell. Scheherazade had the very best, a thousand and one life-saving stories to entertain the sultan. Translated into music by Rimsky-Korsakov, it gave Elim Chan and the London Symphony Orchestra chance to flex their storytelling muscles. But pianist Alice Sara Ott also had tales to weave and proved the more engaging narrator.

Alice Sara Ott © Esther Haase | Deutsche Grammophon
Alice Sara Ott
© Esther Haase | Deutsche Grammophon

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor is every inch as much the warhorse as Scheherazade, yet with Ott there is never a sense of routine. The bold sequence of opening chords were not thumped, but almost caressed. She has the most delicate touch, the first movement cadenza pirouetting with the grace of a music-box ballerina. Cohesive narrative was maintained through persuasively shaped phrasing. Eye contact with the woodwinds – and over-the-shoulder glances at the violins – teased out dialogues, especially in the central movement which took on the quality of intimate chamber music. She transformed the finale into a playful Scherzo, playing cat and mouse with the orchestra.

The LSO was not always as responsive. Climaxes tended towards the fierce and much of the brass playing was thunderous, Chan happy to let them off the leash when a little reining in was required. But there was refreshing clarity to Gareth Davies’ flute solo to open the Andantino semplice and many of the woodwind exchanges were sensitive, responding to Ott’s coaxing glances.

Scheherazade brims with incident, although Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t want to spell them out for the listener beyond vague movement titles. But there are clear leifmotifs: Sultan Shahriyar’s stern pronouncements bellowed by the brass; Scheherazade spinning her lines as narrator, sensitively, sweetly embodied here by the LSO's guest leader, French violinist Julien Szulman. The sea features largely in the outer movements. Rimsky served as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy and tempestuous waves flood the score. Chan, carving out a gigantic beat with her baton, led an exuberant, often loud account, the LSO strings swelling and surging in The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship.

The inner movements displayed the most poetry, particularly Olivier Stankiewicz’ beguiling oboe solo at the opening of The Legend of the Kalendar Prince – now there’s a natural storyteller – and the lavish string section pouring its heart into The Young Prince and the Young Princess. Chan took this movement slowly, sculpting the musical line with caution; it was a gorgeous wallow, although the climax underwhelmed. No such concerns in the incident-packed finale where the shipwreck was topped by a cataclysmic tam-tam crash.

Less engaging storytelling opened the concert. The programme note claimed Liam Mattison has a fascination with stories, particularly tales of the absurd. His Violet was short and peppered with cartoon humour percussion and mute brass quacks, but it was over almost before it had begun, a limerick seeming to miss the punchline.

***11