There was a satisfying unity to the programming of Sunday night’s concert. All three works were written by European composers who had emigrated to the USA between the two world wars, and all were written within a decade of one another. However, despite these similarities, much of the interest was drawn from the difference in the sound worlds of Bartók, Korngold and Rachmaninov, all writing in the same place at the same time.

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton

The opening work, Bartók’s Divermento for Strings, was the perfect vehicle for the LSO string section, renowned for its precision and clarity. Modelled on the Baroque concerto grosso form, it is scored for a small, central group of soloists supported by the larger string orchestra. Despite the Baroque origins of its structure, the work plays with modal harmonies which are stretched to the brink of atonality. The ensemble on stage was considerably larger than the chamber orchestra the piece was written for, yet the performance was remarkably taut and carefully sculpted by guest conductor Marin Alsop. The fast-paced outer movements were a wonderful technical display, with particularly virtuosic playing from leader Roman Simovic and lead cellist Tim Hugh. The central Molto adagio provided some respite, maintaining the ethereal other-worldliness of Bartók’s famed night music but here coloured with a slightly grotesque, foreboding undertone.

The Bartók was the perfect antidote to the lush romanticism of Korngold’s Violin Concerto, scored for an opulent orchestra that makes full use of sweeping glissandi on the harp and sugary melodies on the celesta. James Ehnes has long been an advocate for this work, which has enjoyed a considerable revival in the past decade. Korngold’s mission was to combine beautiful, accessible melodies with superb technical craftsmanship, however, there is a danger that the work can seem like a medley as opposed to a coherent work as quotations from Korngold’s popular film scores provide the foundations of much of the thematic material for the work. Ehnes and Alsop ensured a musical, heartfelt reading of the work which was true to the material without descending into schmaltz. The first movement was particularly engaging; the arching opening melody was crafted into something truly enthralling and played in a refreshingly subtle manner. This meant the glossiness of the finale with its bold Hollywood-style brass writing did not feel too over-the-top. The encore of the theme from Schindler’s List did however feel like a step too far, coming dangerously close to characterising Korngold’s Violin Concerto as a medley of film hits as opposed to a work of integrity.

The entire orchestra and Alsop were afforded the opportunity to come to the fore after the interval, in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, his final work. Alsop captured the dance spirit of this work perfectly, ensuring a real sense of drive and energy in the vigorous first movement, which was framed around a poignant alto saxophone solo. After a macabre waltz in the spirit of Berlioz and Mahler, everything came together for a thunderous finale resplendent with echoes of the Dies irae motif that haunted Rachmaninov’s output throughout his life. The rapport between Alsop and the orchestra was evident throughout and this led to some incredible orchestra playing. All in all, a thrilling case was made for this dynamic period in musical history.