In the musical world, Fate has much to answer for. As one Russian wag averred in 1888, on the occasion of the première of the composer’s E minor symphony, “If Beethoven’s Fifth is Fate knocking at the door, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is Fate trying to get out.” Yet it wasn’t Beethoven who was Tchaikovsky’s hero; Mozart had already stolen his heart. So it was entirely fitting that in this London Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by Nikolaj Znaider (and also directing from his solo Guarneri), the pairing was Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

Fate was very much to the fore in this performance. It was a solid and weighty reading: it helps to be reminded of the number of cylinders and the awe-inspiring horse-power under the LSO’s collective bonnet. It was also a huge help that Znaider – conducting entirely from memory – viewed the work as a coherent and integrated piece and not just a series of stepping-stones to a triumphant conclusion. He moved seamlessly from one movement to the next, thus neatly silencing the brigades of coughers who often regard pauses between movements as invitations to perform bronchial obbligati.

At the outset the prominent clarinet solo from Chris Richards with its downward curl, powerfully underpinned by the lower strings, effected a sense of oppressive gloom. The gravity of the approach was reflected in the saturation of string tone, sounding at one stage almost like one of Mussorgsky’s gigantic oxen-carts trundling past under a doom-laden sky. In all four movements Nigel Thomas’ titanic timpani contributions provided ample evidence of Fate making its presence felt.

Bertrand Chatenet’s silky-smooth horn solo, phrased with a beautifully liquid cantabile tone, was a particular delight in an unhurried and long-breathed slow movement. There was no otiose stirring of the pot from Znaider either: his gestures to the orchestra were always musical and meaningful, including the shaking of an angry fist at the lower brass at the climax of the movement, and he allowed the sound to fade magically away into the far distance at its close.

Whereas Tchaikovsky’s basic mood at the start of his Fifth is “complete resignation before Fate”, as indicated in one of his notebooks, the third movement offers escape from this seemingly intractable situation by opening a door into the world of ballet. The main melody is one that the composer heard being sung by a street-boy in Florence. In Znaider’s hands, however, there was little in the way of Italianate songfulness or indeed Mozartian lightness. Instead, he continued to mine the deep veins of lugubriousness, with the swirling string figurations somewhat deprived of oxygen and the quixotic interjections between strings and woodwind rather underplayed.

Apart from a few questionable instances where the tempo was broadened, as had happened earlier too, the finale was admirably paced, with the velvet-toned lower strings and the perfectly integrated brass emphasising the essential nobility of the movement. The final chords, delivered with due emphasis, spat out a gesture of defiance.

Znaider is in the process of recording with the LSO all five concertos that Mozart wrote for the violin. In company with the other four, this A major work is not intended as a display vehicle for solo virtuosity. That notwithstanding, it offered Znaider a welcome opportunity to display his considerable artistry, not least in the cadenzas, with a pure silvery line matched by a flawless technique and an ability to soar effortlessly above the orchestral textures. These were reduced to chamber-like proportions, with only two double basses, and with the upper strings standing, but with all the violins grouped on the left. The opening was like a ride in an open carriage en plein air, given all the time needed to savour the balmy air, but still enjoying a clear sense of purposeful direction. Already there were glimpses of what was to come in the “Turkish” finale in the gypsy-like inflections to much of the more rapid passagework.

The Adagio had all the characteristics of a pastoral idyll, the languorous heat haze of a late summer hanging over the entire movement. Come the finale, Znaider exploited its dramatic potential and conjured up memories of another composer’s peasants’ merrymaking. In writing his A minor episode, Mozart was but following a fashionable interest in matters Oriental and in the Janissary (alla Turca) style in particular. Yet the elision into the return of the main theme had an exemplary grace and poise.

One small niggle to end with. I rarely find myself short-changed at the end of a concert. This time the two works (concerto and symphony) amounted to a mere 77 minutes of music-making. I didn’t necessarily crave any encore (none supplied), but it would have been good to kick off the evening with something that prepared the ground for the concerto, such as Mozart’s overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail.