In a conventional programme of works by Ravel, Schumann, and Dvořák, Pablo Heras-Casado marshalled three highly effective performances from a worldly-wise London Symphony Orchestra. Opening with Ravel’s love affair with the oboe, Le Tombeau de Couperin, a work that rather too frequently gets an outing these days, his approach was direct and clean. Focussing on rhythmic precision and warmth of phrasing in the lyrical passages, all four movements were brilliantly characterised. Principal oboist, Olivier Stankiewicz, climbed every mountain Ravel presented to him, making the piano conceived part-writing seem effortless.

Renaud Capuçon © François Darmigny
Renaud Capuçon
© François Darmigny

The performance history of the beautiful Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor that followed, has sadly prevented it from being programmed at all until the recently. A very late work, it was written for Joseph Joachim, who after the composer’s final descent into madness, decided the work wasn’t up to scratch and refused to perform it. This led to the decision by Clara Schumann and Brahms to put it to one side, insisting it should never be played. In 1933, however, pressure was put on Schumann’s last surviving daughter to give permission for it to be exhumed and performed almost simultaneously by three of the leading violinists of the day across the globe. Unfortunately, at this time the Nazis also decided to champion the work as a viable German alternative to the ever popular (but Jewish) Mendelsohn concerto. After the fall of the Nazis, Schumann's concerto never found a foothold in the concert hall and only a few recordings of the work kept it alive. But from the 1990s onwards a rediscovery of Schumann’s orchestral music, once considered badly written sub-Beethoven, has seen the concerto come into its own at last.

Renaud Capuçon's performance showed us why the concerto is finally finding its way more and more into concert halls. In the noble opening movement, he found an heroic tone and impetuousness. In the Langsam second movement the endless melody, cushioned by heart-breaking harmonic suspensions, was beautifully captured. It was the pert polonaise finale that proved most effective here. Powerful virtuoso playing from Capuçon found a perfect sparring partner in the LSO woodwinds whose oddly jolly repeated passages eventually find rest in D major. Another joy in the performance was the apt choice of tempi, allowing the outer movements air to breathe, but avoiding a sense of plodding. 

The choice of tempi was also spot on in Dvořák's Symphony no. 8 in G major that rounded off the evening. The composer's most personal and confident symphony, it went through a period of neglect, just like the Schumann concerto. Dvořák's symphonies, after their initial popularity, were increasingly seen as inferior to Brahms' and Tchaikovsky’s, despite the enduring popularity of the “New World” Ninth. However, the tide has turned and the last three symphonies have found a very strong foothold in the repertoire, with perhaps the Eighth being the most popular. It is a work that is a joy from first to last, so ably demonstrated in this performance.

One of the chief strengths was Heras-Casado’s ability to hold onto the work's structural thread. At no point did the music meander or dwell on the exquisiteness of the melody, a pitfall for some conductors. The approach was purely symphonic and the result crisp and incisive. Not that the beautiful thematic material wasn’t given its full due by the orchestra – the woodwind shone through, but also the strings were suitably rich but lean and the brass exciting in all the right places. All the movements were splendidly satisfying, most notably in the fizzing finale, with its tender central episode, totally integrated into the unusual structure. At the end, what came across was that not only was Dvořák one of the great symphonists of the 19th century, but that he was also one of the greatest orchestrators.