It was another evening staring into the abyss courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. A fortnight after Sir Simon Rattle drove his charges into hell in a thrilling Damnation of Faust, Semyon Bychkov presided over a pair of works that each teeters on the edge of the precipice. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony opens with a grim funeral march and demonic trio, followed by a vehement second movement. Britten’s Violin Concerto begins with a fragile lament, while the elegiac coda shifts from prayer to desperate cry and a final sense of resignation. Not a programme for the faint-hearted.

Janine Jansen © Marco Borggreve
Janine Jansen
© Marco Borggreve

It’s to Janine Jansen’s great credit that she has championed the Britten concerto. It’s not a vehicle for flashy virtuosity but nonetheless it requires a formidable technique to bring it off. Jascha Heifetz supposedly rejected the concerto as unplayable, although he offered to work with Britten on revising the solo part (but never performed it). There’s a tension that runs through the entire work and Jansen, in a dramatic black gown daubed with a thick brushstroke of gold, never flinched in the face of its challenges. Despite a very slow opening, with its insistent five-note timpani motto and feathery crash cymbals almost apologetic, she wrested control, soaring above the orchestra.

Jansen’s sound is muscular, powered by a strong bowing arm and steely fingertips which meant that even spectral pianissimos were sweet, yet penetrating. Her 1707 Stradivarius ‘Rivaz – Baron Gutmann’ violin was almost employed as a percussion instrument and her fearsome double-stopping in the sinister scherzo, accompanied by her hair flying with each up-bow, painted a dramatic picture. Bychkov led a beefy, assertive orchestral accompaniment, slow-paced and serious, which proved just right for the dark undertones of the sombre passacaglia finale.

Britten was a devotee of Mahler’s music and his arrangements (such as “What the wild flowers tell me” from the Third Symphony) helped Mahler’s music reach a wider public in England. It was appropriate, then, to pair the Britten concerto with Mahler’s Fifth in what proved a powerful overall performance. Bychkov’s Mahler is implacable and weighty so the sober tread to the opening funeral march came as little surprise, although splenetic outbursts surprised as he ramped up the tempo during the first movement.

The LSO responded magnificently, particularly the brass. Philip Cobb’s incisive solo trumpet call cut across the hall with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, yet his buttery pianissimos were just as impressive. Fierce double basses really dug into the second movement, but Bychkov was in no hurry, lending a granitic solidity to the performance. Clarinets and oboes raised their bells to toll their bleak cries, while the horns carolled their way through the rustic Ländler. If there was a minor niggle to be had, it was that the waltz section of the Scherzo felt stilted, lacking Viennese lilt. Willem Mengelberg claimed the Adagietto was Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma. Bychkov kept it moving, a songlike, tender embrace that never cloyed, attentive to every dynamic swell in the strings. His approach to the finale, as Mahler moves from tragedy to triumph, was one of fierce industry, leading to a jubilant conclusion to a terrific concert.