The programme for the opening concert of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s new season neatly summarised what is to come this year, showcasing the talents of composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg and featuring two warhorses of twentieth-century Russian repertoire.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Ben Ealovega
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Ben Ealovega

The concert opened with a rather lengthy yet informative speech by principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski who discussed his excitement at Magnus Lindberg’s forthcoming collaborations with the orchestra as well as his interpretation of Shosatkovich’s Symphony no. 8, the gargantuan meditation of war that occupied the second half of the concert.

The concert began with Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale, a short orchestral meditation based on Bach’s rendering of the Lutheran hymn Es ist Genug, which was also used by Berg to haunting effect in his Violin Concerto. Lindberg atmospherically draws upon the analogy of the tide moving in and out, obscuring and then revealing a rock to describe the role the original chorale plays in the piece. Amongst sophisticated orchestration, fragments of Bach’s harmony emerge, most effectively towards the end when the final cadence sings out in the brass only for the final chord to dissolve into Lindberg’s more ambiguous harmonic language. The playing was tightly-controlled, although more could have been made of certain moments such as a particularly effective passage where the violins and violas produce an almost digital-sounding effect by rapidly sliding up and down the strings. What is an effective moment on disc was almost completely lost in the concert hall. Still, the playing and the piece were both accomplished enough to whet appetites for the new Lindberg works that are to follow this year.

This season will also see an exploration of twentieth-century Russian music with a particular focus on Rachmaninov, and the first half was completed by an exhilarating performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. What was most surprising about the performance was the appearance of effortlessness on Bavouzet’s part. This is a notoriously difficult piano score with many rhythmic challenges, particularly involving the interplay with the orchestra, yet it is also one of Prokofiev’s most impressionistic pieces. Achieving a convincing interpretation of the marriage of the more sardonic elements of Prokofiev’s writing and the tangible influence of impressionism, whilst simultaneously mastering the technical challenges, is a difficult task and Bazouvet and Jurowski did a commendable job of shaping a performance of great musicality. Bazouvet played two encores, including a particularly touching rendition of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, which smartly accentuated the impressionistic elements in the Prokofiev concerto.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8 is relatively rarely performed, yet its critical stature has grown considerably since its première in 1943. The biggest challenge is controlling the expansive structure which includes an opening movement that runs to over half an hour. Jurowski excelled at this with well-chosen tempi and smart phrasing. The opening bars are uncannily reminiscent of the first bars of his Symphony no. 5, and the suggestion that the two openings are depressingly similar because life is depressingly similar is a poignant one. Three huge, apocalyptic orchestral climaxes in the first, third and fifth movements are a focal point in the work. Jurowski had already outlined his belief that the last of these should be the greatest and most terrifying, however there wasn’t a convincing sense of progression throughout the three, the last not being noticeably different to the first, which perhaps made the final movement slightly less cathartic. Otherwise, this was an engaging performance. I have never seen so many players singled out by a conductor at the end of a performance and this highlighted one of the most exciting things about this symphony: that so many instruments are given extended, often virtuosic solo passages from a mournful, candenza-like cor anglais solo to thrilling passages for piccolo, timpani and trumpet.

The concert was an excellent calling card for the forthcoming season for both Lindberg and the orchestra and I look forward to hearing them explore this repertoire further in the months to come.