Schumann’s Genoveva is one of those overtures that doesn't get out much, always severed from the opera it opens. A shame perhaps, since invested with the life the London Symphony Orchestra breathed into it, a rising theatre curtain should ideally follow. We had more Schumann though in the form of his Piano Concerto in A minor, with soloist Dame Mitsuko Uchida. No artist is ever given a warmer welcome in London than she is, and from the first sighting of her entrance the applause was loud and long. Of course, she usually justifies it when she plays, and so it was here.

Mitsuko Uchida, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra
© Barbican | Mark Allan

The first movement hung fire at times, the steady tempo perhaps inhibiting spontaneous-sounding playing, though everything was in its place. There were exquisite clarinet and oboe solos, and a fine poetic cadenza. For the repetitions of the naive tiptoeing theme of the gentle slow movement, Uchida found more nuance, and the cello section especially was warm in tone and phrasing. The vivacious finale was best of all: each episode, even the stirringly played fugato, harnessed to the broad onward course by Sir Simon Rattle’s shrewd conducting. Uchida’s responsiveness often brought a chamber music feeling to the proceedings. The large audience-cum-fan-club were duly impressed.

Rachmaninov added that Schumann concerto to his concert repertoire late in his career, playing it just twice in his penultimate season, so there is no recording alas. But by then he had completed his Third Symphony and recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His score certainly gives the conductor plenty to do (Rattle used his during the performance), and much of the music assumes a virtuoso orchestra. So it is a natural fit with the LSO, whose recordings of it with Previn and Gergiev endure.

This performance suggested the current personnel need fear no comparison with their forebears or even the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1930s, such was its excellence. Does Sir Simon know the composer’s recording? His swift timings for the second and third movements were almost identical to the Rachmaninov's own. In the first movement, Rattle added a couple of minutes, making room for the chant-like motto and many lyrical moments to register. The glorious second subject blossomed in his hands, its repeats and extensions growing from the cello section’s noble playing to a fiery trombone blast protesting at the cost of exile. The development section’s kaleidoscopic changes of dynamics and texture were superbly done, phrases rapidly exchanged between instruments with dazzling brilliance.

The slow movement’s opening on harp and horn, followed by solo moments for violin, flute and clarinet, offered more fine playing in contemplative mood. The central section, a Scherzo embedded within the Adagio, rose to fiery outbursts before calm returned. The finale too mixes different types of music, and Rattle and his players managed to give each episode its due without the movement losing its way, but rather pursued its predominant Slavonic dance manner through to the close. This is Rachmaninov, so you can’t stop the Dies Irae muscling in moodily near the end, but it was soon swept aside. The headlong coda brought a spontaneous cheer for this majestic performance. No microphones were to be seen alas – such a compelling interpretation should be preserved on the orchestra’s own label.

*****