The programme for last night's London Philharmonic concert at the Royal Festival Hall was wall-to-wall Late Romantic, with the first half consisting of three very different works linked by the theme of death. We opened with Rachmaninov's symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, inspired by a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. The painting shows a standing figure on a small boat being rowed towards the sunlit cliffs of an island topped by cypresses (which have symbolised funeral rites since Homeric times). It's a highly atmospheric painting, and Rachmaninov's music is every bit its equal, with splashes of woodwind and brass colour lifted above calmness and dark colours from timpani and strings: the middle register instruments are particularly emotive.

Isola dei Morti IV (by Arnold Böcklin), image from Wikipedia
Isola dei Morti IV (by Arnold Böcklin), image from Wikipedia

Next was a Rachmaninov work in a quite different mood: his rhapsody on Paganini's A minor caprice. This may also be about death, but from a different angle: dancing with the devil rather than languishing in grief. Rachmaninov is at his most mercurial and playful, with a piano part full of musical jokes to keep a smile on your face. The third piece was Liszt's Totentanz (the German means "dance of death", which shares a theme (the powerful plainsong Dies Irae) with the end of the Rhapsody. Where the Rachmaninov pieces go for mourning or irony, the Liszt goes for unalloyed power with march rhythms and imposing brass fanfares, interspersed with quiet piano moments of rare delicacy.

I hoped for much form such a varied and lively first half programme, and I'm sorry to say that I didn't feel the LPO and Vänskä really delivered it. Tempi were very slow, to the point of making the whole thing rather leaden. Pianist Bernd Glemser was precise in his rendering, but seemed a little too refined to me - the piano sound came out neat and tidy rather than packing the requisite degree of punch: Glemser seemed happier in the quiet, more introspective parts of the Liszt than in ratcheting up the power to compete with the orchestra. Vänskä's conducting style is idiosyncratic, to say the least: he goes through many different styles: grand sweeping gestures, detailed marking of the time, jumping up and down, standing motionless gazing at one part or other of the orchestra, sometimes conducting with his baton just above knee height. I'm not sure the LPO knew what to make of it.

The second half was better. Dvořák's seventh symphony is a marvellous piece. It's also dark in colour, but brims over with so many different melodic ideas that you're constantly kept on the move. The LPO recovered some of the required passion and drive, with the various melodies soaring above the strings of the opening. The whole performance was a little better defined: gentleness in the Adagio without drifting, cheerful dance of the Scherzo, and energetic finale.

**111