Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve
As the first violinist permitted to record the original 1903/4 version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Leonidas Kavakos arguably has more authority and insight to bring to its eventual 1905 incarnation than any other living player. That double recording, of the two editions side by side, may be nearly 25 years old now, but Kavakos’s interest in the established version has shown no sign of slacking. His latest concert performance, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, may not have been pristine throughout (there was the odd intonational lapse, for instance), but it demonstrated deep affection, passionate engagement and technical ease. After a first movement that seemed to sail in from on high, full of ethereal, keening melody, Kavakos’s tone took on a wholly darker presence for the central Adagio, which he played with heartfelt feeling and with a commitment that extended to playing along with the tutti violins in his supposed rest during the first orchestral climax. His excellent rapport with Jurowski and the orchestra was at its best in the finale, taken at a faster than usual tempo and which felt relentless in its forward momentum and surging rhythmic drive.

This concert brought together two anniversarians: Sibelius for his 150th birthday and Alexander Scriabin in the centenary year of his death. They were born just six years apart, yet for all Sibelius’s early Tchaikovskian leanings, there’s little musically to connect them. However, both explored sonic colour: Sibelius the cool, starker hues of Nordic light, Scriabin the gold-leaved opulence of Russian iconography. Oliver Knussen, in his Scriabin Settings of 1978, takes five of the Russian’s late piano miniatures and, in arranging them for small chamber orchestra, enhances them with subtle, pastel shades to match their elusive, languid sounds. As a brief concert-opener, lasting under ten minutes in total, the pieces acted as a gentle but captivating foil for the larger beasts of concerto and symphony. The joy of listening was in the detail: the way Jurowski layered the spread chord at the end of Nuances (No. 2), or the transparency of texture as the harmonies pile up in the Feuillet d’album (No. 4). Knussen’s wonderfully delicate arrangements show that one doesn’t need the full Scriabinesque panoply of orchestral forces to re-create his sound-world.

That was left for the authentic Scriabin of his Divine Poem, or third symphony, which calls for quadruple wind, five trumpets, eight horns and strings to match, and thunders into being on its organ-like brass. Yet this work, too, is full of subtle colouration and it was this that impressed most in Jurowski’s interpretation. He is an expert in wielding large-scale Romantic scores that revel in the intimate as much as the grandiose and the textures here often had exquisite shape and layered luxuriance: the ‘Sensual pleasures’ of the central movement lived up to their name, building into a wash of yearning harmonies and twittering birdcalls. Throughout the score, the composer writes elaborate, poetic-sounding instructions for how the music should sound at particular moments – ‘mysterious, romantic, legendary’; ‘with rapture’; ‘exploding with joy’ – and it is a mark of a successful performance how well these are conveyed through sound alone. Needless to say, Jurowski proved to be their master and every detail of expression was made to count, even if he did resort to a greater flexibility of tempo than Scriabin states.

Conductors are in the habit of adding additional parts for percussion to Scriabin’s score, in the first movement, ‘Struggles’, and finale, a movement entitled ‘Divine Joy’. But Jurowski is the first in my experience to connect the three, widely spaced final chords with a thundering drum-roll – uncomfortable, but in the event perhaps effective in thwarting premature applause.