To mark the centenary of the horrific Battle of the Somme, which lasted for nearly six months in the summer and autumn of 1916, Sir Mark Elder and the London Symphony Orchestra brought together music with a connection to the First World War. George Butterworth was a casualty of that very battle, shot by a sniper and killed on 5th August 1916 at the age of just 31, and depriving the world – as Elder claimed in a short address to the audience – of a figure who could well have become one of our great composers. As it was, he left us just a handful of songs and a few orchestral miniatures, but what a powerful miniature his orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad is. A.E. Housman’s collection of poems of that name addresses the effects of the Boer War on the generation before Butterworth and chimed with a significant number of composers in the pre-war years. Butterworth’s rhapsody, completed in 1913 and based on themes from his own song settings from that collection of verse, thus adds poignancy with the hindsight of his own cruel demise. Elder both launched and took leave of the music with the most breathtaking of pianissimos, and in between shaped the arch-like formal and emotional dynamic of the music with masterly control. It’s a compact piece, but crams in a lot, and there was plenty of room for interpretative detail to emerge, such as the authentic glides between melodic notes that Elder encouraged from his string players.

Cédric Tiberghien © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Cédric Tiberghien
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Butterworth was among the many of Vaughan Williams’ good friends lost to the war who were commemorated in the older composer’s Third Symphony of 1922. No simple ‘pastoral idyll’, despite it being titled A Pastoral Symphony, this is one of the most moving tributes to the war dead in the repertoire. Vaughan Williams had himself served as a stretcher-bearer and seen the carnage for himself, and the music appears to be as much about his own psychological healing as a more collective coming to terms with the experience, even though he seems to have been cagey about its underlying meaning at the time of its première. Again, Elder’s pacing of the music was ideal, both expansive and, where called for, energised. The LSO string and wind soloists each made their mark, no more so than Philip Cobbs’s evocative trumpet call, even though he ironed out some of the natural but ‘sour’ harmonic-based tuning that makes the effect more redolent of a bugle. Soprano Louise Alder, replacing an indisposed Elizabeth Watts, made much of her brief wordless lines that frame the finale, though making her LSO debut hidden behind the wooden panels at the back of the platform reminded us that the Barbican Hall doesn’t really do atmospheric off-stage ambience.

After the interval, pianist Cédric Tiberghien was at least able to give his LSO debut from the front of the stage, performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Here the connections between the composers and pieces on this programme abounded: Ravel had taught Vaughan Williams and had also served behind the lines as a medical orderly during the war; the concerto itself was famously commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who had lost his right arm while fighting with the Austrian army in 1914. With Tiberghien’s crystalline but muscular playing of the solo part coupled with Elder’s ear for colour in drawing out the detail and subtlety in Ravel’s miraculous orchestration, this was a highly convincing account, one in which darkness and light played off each other to great effect. Tiberghien’s encore of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie – a perfectly gauged account – neatly connected us to the last work in this generous programme, the spume-filled expanses of the same composer’s La Mer, in a performance from Elder and the LSO that exploited nuance as much as over-powering aural impact.