Alec Robertson’s old ‘Master Musicians’ guide to Dvořák, a product of the 1940s, is amusingly rude about the Carnival Overture, and extols the virtues of Othello by way of contrast, and insists “It is high time it displaced Carnival”. Concert promoters and conductors outside the Czech Republic have not shared this opinion, for in terms of performances it is still a bit of a rarity, and many in the Barbican audience could have been hearing it live for the first time. It is not an obvious curtain-raiser, and the composer had many doubts about using Othello as a title at all. But as a one-movement evocation of Shakespearean tragedy it perhaps stands above Liszt’s Hamlet and Berlioz’s King Lear, if not as high as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (don’t write in…). It is certainly high-quality Dvořák, and the London Symphony Orchestra's playing of it made the most of its potent atmosphere, from the tender string playing of the brooding opening to the ensuing turbulence as the drama gathered pace. Sir Mark Elder seemed in no doubt about the qualities of the piece, and if at times Desdemona sounded more Bohemian than Venetian, her tragedy was just as touching.

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

The programme progressed from a rarity to a warhorse, in the form of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, with soloist Nikolaj Znaider on commanding form. Right from the fine flourish of his opening short cadenza, he drew a silvery tone from his instrument, especially in lyrical moments. When the pace quickened and the passion heightened he displayed the various colours that make him so distinctive an artist. His precision in swift passagework was at times a wonder, and even his double-stopping avoided any coarse-grade sandpaper effects but retained a torn silk quality. He also likes to maintain a steady tempo, so the expressive high points are well made but never impede the flow of the music. Znaider is of course an established conductor as well as a leading violinist, so perhaps he has learned from the challenge of accompanying more wayward soloists. The orchestra played their part with real fire at times, especially in the extended tutti near the end of the first movement, and in the high-stepping gypsy finale.

Elgar’s Second Symphony must be a tricky piece to begin, with its repeated notes on the strings forming a sort of launch pad into its leaping first subject. It did seem to take a few bars to achieve take-off on this occasion, but once airborne this great 18-minute Allegro vivace e nobilmente exerted its accustomed grip. The wistful second subject was played with the spiritual devotion the composer requested, calming the torrent before the opening material returned with renewed force and led to a huge climax. The cellos made the utmost of the strange passage which Elgar called “a malign influence”. This is a movement in which a lot happens, with some stark juxtapositions of mood and tempo, but the tension was maintained by Elder right throughout its long span.

The sublime Larghetto is one of the world’s great orchestral elegies, once thought a funeral march for a monarch, now heard as a lament for the passing of an era. Elder set a daringly slow tempo and sustained it well, producing a cumulative, sorrowing eloquence as each LSO section tossed its melodic tribute onto the passing cortège.

At the recapitulation there is a famous quasi-improvisatory oboe solo, keening freely high above the noble dirge. It is one Elgar’s great moments. It requires really quiet playing from all expect the oboe, but in the Barbican truly quiet playing seems hard to achieve, and the oboe’s heartbroken crescendo up to a high B flat and then B natural got rather swallowed up. This was a pity, for in the right circumstances the LSO can whisper as well as roar.

But this is a score rich in details, not every one of which can make its effect in a single performance. The key is to impart energy and maintain the surge and sway of such relentless invention. Thus the Rondo flew by in a rush of quicksilver playing, the “malign influence” returning in a build-up of nightmarish – and deafening – intensity. The Moderato and maestoso final movement began with a beguiling insouciance and Elgar’s favourite nobilmente marking for the second subject was properly observed. The fugato of the development section demands, and here received, playing of high virtuosity, and the final climax of the work brought glorious brazen horn tone to cap all that had gone before. A feature of Elder’s mastery of this score was his terracing of the climaxes across the four movements, his ability to take the long view, all the way through to the sunset splendour of the glowing, enigmatic coda.