American conductor Karina Canellakis was first encouraged to take up the baton by Sir Simon Rattle when she was playing violin in the Berlin Philharmonic. This was her London Symphony Orchestra debut, and she chose an ambitious programme. None of these Strauss or Ravel pieces exactly plays itself, and London is not noted for long rehearsal periods. But it helps if you have confidence, technique, some high-level orchestral playing and conducting experience, and the LSO’s expertise to hand.

Karina Canellakis and the London Symphony Orchestra © Mark Pullinger
Karina Canellakis and the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Pullinger

But even the LSO won’t have played the opening work very often. This was a rare sighting of Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy on his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, possibly more so even than the opera itself. It is a fair distillation of the operatic score, convincingly stitched together if still more Fantasy than Symphony. The portentous opening soon led to a gorgeous arching phrase, first trumpet Philip Cobb gilding its peak with golden tone. The strings sang exquisitely in the ensuing lyrical passage, and Simon Johnson’s trombone later made a fair imitation of a missing baritone voice. Initially it seemed Canellakis had forgotten Strauss’ famous injunction “Never look at the brass, it only encourages them!”, but then she will not have often experienced the Barbican’s coarsening effect on a tutti from heavy brass placed so close to a back wall. She, and they, soon adjusted.

In Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, Cédric Tiberghien was an immaculate soloist, if one more interested in poetry than display. The concerto needs both, but if there is to be a priority, that is the right one, not least in the timeless enchantment of the Adagio assai. Ravel said he had a Mozart score to hand in composing such a long flowing melody, but – heresy alert – that flatters Mozart. Tiberghien has a wonderful way with the tug of the melody in 3/4 against an accompaniment that wants to play a waltz twice the speed. And there was display enough in the toccata-like finale, from pianist and a succession of LSO players, the gurgling bassoons especially delightful. But that finale is so brilliant and brief that Ravel is suspected of ‘writing in’ an encore opportunity. First violin Carmine Lauri duly joined Tiberghien in Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cake-walk, sounding a bit overawed by the pianist telling us the arrangement was by one Jascha Heifetz.

Death and Transfiguration is, of course, by Strauss, not Bruckner, but both masters test the conductor’s ability to pace mostly slow music so that it builds to a climax that arrives inevitably but with maximum impact. Canellakis has the musicianship for that task, and each of Strauss’ over-the-top moments registered high on music’s Richter scale. She has a clear and continuous beat, conveys her own delight in the music, and reserves really expansive gestures for episodes of, well, transfiguration. Nothing could follow this, surely.

But few pieces end a concert as well as Ravel’s La Valse (except his Boléro, or Daphnis, or Rapsodie espagnole…) And as if Strauss did not use a big enough orchestra, on trooped seven extra percussionists. The work has a shadowy start, where through ”whirling clouds waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished”. We heard something more prosaic than Ravel’s preface to his score implies, but Canellakis soon had the LSO strings swooning into the main theme, and all was well. Except in this work, gradually all is not well. The dancers became more frenetic, the rhythms more broken, and we were dancing towards doom. From ecstasy to apocalypse, Canellakis’s LSO debut will surely ensure her return... if there is space in her calendar.

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