Romantic violin concertos and ballets represent the epitome of virtuoso display, under which the orchestra can sometimes be relegated to a supporting role. However, with the LSO in absolute top form under the baton of the young French conductor Lionel Bringuier, two such masterpieces by Brahms and Ravel served above all as an exciting showcase for orchestra.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The first half opened with Brahms’ colossal Violin Concerto – with its 25 minute-long opening movement, the piece has often been described as a symphony in disguise. Indeed, the extended orchestral introduction was fully symphonic, Bringuier showing off the full dynamic range of the orchestra within the opening phrases and eliciting some wonderfully liquid woodwind solos. Indeed, the woodwind section was on particularly fine form throughout the concerto, including an impeccably phrased oboe solo in the second movement. Bringuier also managed the tricky task of maintaining balance with his soloist, given the heavy orchestration – the violin solo line often elaborates on themes heard in the orchestra, and Bringuier was able to highlight these melodic lines without ever covering the solo.

Against this magnificent backdrop, soloist Alina Ibragimova offered an unconventional if illuminating performance. Perhaps best known for her period-informed performances of Mozart and Bach, her pure, silvery tone is worlds away from the typical, muscular Brahms sound. Thanks to Bringuier’s sensitive conducting, there were never any audibility issues, although one did miss a certain bloom in the sound in the more climactic moments of the first movement. Similarly, Ibragimova never seemed quite comfortable with some of the chord-heavy passages, with the occasional intonation lapse in the more far-reaching parallel tenth passages. Despite this, her sensitive phrasing was revelatory in other passages, including ravishing high passagework in the second movement. Like Bringuier, Ibragimova seemed determined to push the boundaries of how softly she could play, bringing a chamber-like intimacy to this most colossal of works. There were plenty of opportunities as well for virtuoso fireworks, particularly in the finale which was played faster than I’ve ever encountered and brought the first half to an exhilarating finish. 

Even better was the second half of the concert, featuring two 20th-century French orchestral showpieces. It has perhaps become cliché to simply associate French orchestration with colour, but Dutilleux’s Métaboles, premiered in 1965, is a 20-minute exploration of early 20th-century influences and truly pushes the limits of orchestral colour. Structured in five continuous movements, the first four feature an individual orchestral family before coming together in a whirlwind finale. The opening movement, “Incantatoire”, is a Stravinsky-esque woodwind movement, full of polyrhythms and jazzy riffs punctuated by pizzicato strings. The subsequent “Linéaire” is as big a contrast as possible, with lush string chords reminiscent of Poulenc at his most louche. The LSO strings were in particularly fine form for this movement, playing with a radiance that filled the hall. The jazzy, brass-heavy “Obsessionnel” and the percussion-punctuated, minimalistic “Torpide” were less memorable. With all of these diverse musical influences, it is easy for a multi-movement work like this to sound disjointed –however, the final movement, aptly named “Flamboyant”, brilliantly synthesizes all of these disparate soundworlds into a showpiece for full orchestra that could only be Dutilleux.

Best of all, however, was the performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, presented here as the second orchestral suite. It’s a shame they chose not to perform the full ballet, though much of the score’s most creative music does indeed come in the final 15 minutes of the work. Bringuier brought a surprising power and articulation to a work often described in hazy, Impressionist terms – the highly florid opening, depicting sunrise, benefitted immensely from this transparency and articulation. Similarly, though the closing bacchanale was taken at breakneck pace, this carefully articulated and accented approach was a reminder that after Daphnis, the Ballet Russes’ next major commission was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Amidst all of this tumultuousness, particular mention must be made of principal flautist Adam Walker’ s immaculate solo, taken dangerously slowly and softly whilst maintaining a luxuriant sound.