A generous evening of heavyweight works with the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabien Gabel kicked off with a detailed performance of Ravel’s La Valse. Now one of the composer’s most popular works, perhaps overtaking Boléro in the concert hall, it nevertheless remains a tricky piece to bring off. The problem is the gradation of the climaxes that should build up to the eventual apocalyptic surge. If this is underplayed the dramatic point of the piece is missed, if it is pushed too hard, the final pages can be an anti-climax. Gabel steered a sure path, with the unctuous quality of the strings particularly effective. Only in the very last dash to the finishing post did he push the tempo too hard, jarringly moving up a gear, which added to the excitement but seeming slightly artificial.

Fabien Gabel © Gaetan Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gaetan Bernard

No qualms about the orchestral contribution to the Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor by Shostakovich that followed. Responsive, pliable and accurate, it provided the ideal platform for the soloist, James Ehnes, to build his interpretation of a very demanding, virtuosic score. As well as getting round the notes, the soloist has to achieve a remarkable level of intensity. Ehnes certainly had all the technical equipment to master all the challenges Shostakovich could throw at him and in the slow Nocturne first movement, he seemed to have the measure of the works particular strength of feeling. However in the Scherzo that followed he seemed to lack the last ounce of devilry. This is a wild and cynical movement, with a bitterness barely concealed behind bouncy rhythms, which here sounded tidied up rather than embraced by the soloist. This impression was confirmed in the Burlesque finale which was note perfect but still somehow less than ideal in tone.

A beautiful encore of the third movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in E minor, showed us the quality of Ehnes’s pianissimo and the wonderfully delicate way he has with the ornamentation in the Baroque repertoire.

After the interval the première of a new piece, Ebbing Tides, by the 25-year old composer Michael Taplin proved to be a strong piece introducing a distinctive compositional voice. Written in an extended tonality, it opened with a brooding motif which dominated the piece throughout in different guises. A more animated and bleak central section created quite an original head of steam, before retreating into the gloom. Well-orchestrated and paced, this was a most promising piece by a new young musical voice.

The concert rounded off with one of the concert staples that never fails to please, Pictures at an Exhibition. Nowhere in Ravel’s own compositions did he exercise such care and tonal subtlety than in this arrangement. The combination of the melodic and harmonic oddities of Mussorgsky’s piano pieces and Ravel’s Technicolor orchestration is well-nigh irresistible. In this performance all the colours were brought out with some of the most accomplished playing from the LSO that I have heard for some time. All departments were on top form and to add to this, there was a definite sense that the orchestra were enjoying themselves. Gabel found all the right tempi and every nuance of the orchestration and the dynamics was carefully realised.