Just occasionally, a musical experience is so exquisite, so divine, that you selfishly cannot bear to contemplate it ending. It’s that sensation of being so utterly caught up in the music’s rapt embrace, yet conscious that time – despite what your heart is telling you – is indeed inching forward. Thus it was with a strange mixture of elation and a heavy heart that “L'île inconnue” drew a mesmeric performance by Susan Graham of Les nuits d’été to a wistful close last night at the Barbican.

Susan Graham © Benjamin Ealovega
Susan Graham
© Benjamin Ealovega

It’s doubtful whether Berlioz’s song cycle, setting six poems by Théophile Gautier, was ever intended to be performed by one singer. Sopranos, tenors and bass-baritones have essayed the set, but nothing beats a warm mezzo in this cycle, even if some of the songs can stretch the upper register. Graham sailed through these higher passages gloriously, her mezzo in remarkably good shape. There was never any forcing the voice to be louder than it needed to be and she scaled her dynamic down to a mere thread of sound, particularly in “Absence”, matched by daring pianissimi from the LSO strings under Sir Mark Elder.

Yet what impressed most was Graham’s sense of communication, both in terms of diction – crystal clear according to my French colleague – and in gesture. A flash of the eye or a deft placement of the hand spoke volumes, yet none of it seemed calculated or exaggerated. After a ravishing “Spectre de la rose” and the gnawing grief of “Sur les lagunes”, her delivery of “L'île inconnue” was deliciously flirtatious. If only we saw more of her in London…

Almost inevitably, the rest of the concert failed to reach the same giddy heights. The programme opened with the première of Patrick Brennan’s teasingly titled Ballabile; teasing because any sense of dance is only hinted at in the briefest of fragments. A slow introduction layered sounds on top of each other; woodwind harmonics and queasy spectral double bass effects providing some of the most arresting moments. The second half of the work had more movement, but it was difficult to focus on the bigger picture when the musical ideas were so fragmentary.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony was given a powerhouse rendition which had many things to admire in it. Turbo-charged string playing, light-as-a-feather flutes and lacerating brass were all on aural display, yet it was the quiet playing which impressed most. Rachel Gough’s lugubrious bassoon solo, underpinned by the LSO’s terrific double bass team, was beautifully shaped and Andrew Marriner’s diminuendo in his first movement solo was breathtaking. Yet strangely, this performance never moved me in the way a great “Pathétique” will rip your heart asunder. Elder secured terrific playing, but it was so polished that it frequently felt steely. There was a nonchalant air about the second movement waltz in 5/4 time, while the third movement march felt clinically cold, despite ramping up the decibels impressively. There was a purposeful tempo for the final Adagio lamentoso but with a superficial sheen, this “Pathétique” wasn’t a performance which plumbed the emotional depths. But then, perhaps the bar had been set ridiculously high in such heavenly Berlioz…