When music critics use the term “easy listening”, it’s usually meant as derogatory. But should it be? Last night at the Barbican, the London Symphony Orchestra’s programme consisted of three works which are undoubtedly easy to listen to, but are so replete with life and colour as to create a delightful concert, which improved as it went along. Besides, I won’t easily forget the sight of Alain Altinoglu doing chicken impressions on the conductor’s podium – but more of that later.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Replacing the previously advertised Kodály Háry János suite as a curtain-raiser, Mussorgsky’s Prelude to Sorochintsy Fair made this an all-Russian evening. Altinoglu was obviously in high good humour as he beamed through the amiably bucolic opening, becoming rapt as we proceeded to the romantic second section. Just as obvious was the high sound quality of every section of the LSO, though I’m not sure they were enjoying the piece as much as their conductor. They cheered up when the music speeded up into its fast peasant dance.

The good humour was perhaps explained when Simon Trpčeski arrived and announced that his performance was dedicated to Altinoglu on the occasion of his birthday, before settling onto his piano stool. After a long pause, Trpčeski embarked on the solo opening to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, the alternating middle register chords and single bass notes delivered with a steady tread, each note calculated and weighted with perfect precision. Here was a pianist utterly in his comfort zone with this work and thoroughly happy to be playing it with this conductor and orchestra. The LSO’s quality of sound only became more evident, with sumptuously rich cello and bass passages and clarinet phrases full of life and character. The concerto is easy to listen to because it is so replete with melody – there’s hardly a set of half a dozen bars without some tune that sticks in your head and carries you along.

But maybe it was all just a little too comfortable. Trpčeski was playing things just a shade safe, perfectly consistent and accurate but sometimes submerged in the orchestral wash and not always quite in time with it. While every instrument group was gloriously together within itself, there were occasions where a mistiming between desks, however slight, caused a hesitation which interrupted the romantic flow. There were some great passages, particularly the fugato part of the last movement, but this concerto offers the possibility of greater bite.

That bite was provided in no uncertain terms in the second half of the concert, with the LSO increased in forces for Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. If the Rachmaninov is a cornucopia of melody, Ravel delivers a container load of colour – which the LSO passed on to us with joy in their hearts and exceptional skill in the execution. The gnome grinned malevolently through the tightest of string sounds punctuated by glockenspiel, followed by extraordinarily smooth downward string glissandi. Altinoglu was unafraid of tension-building pauses, certain that his players could produce a perfectly coordinated semiquaver run from a standing start. Built of woodwind arabesques, the old castle loomed nostalgically in its gloomy landscape. When the fancy took him, Altinoglu turned actor, glowering grumpily as the old Jew Goldenberg, rousing the troops in Bydło, more military caravan than rustic ox-cart, fluttering his head and pecking at the ground in The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. The brass sound in Bydło contained untold reserves of richness, with Rebecca Smith conjuring a gorgeous sound out of a euphonium in place of the usual first trombone; the trumpet fanfare in Catacombs was one of those big orchestral “oh my” moments.

This was a fearless piece of conducting, Altinoglu daring the musicians to produce the most extreme pianissimi to set against the big tutti, no more so than in the faintest of string ostinati that precede the closing Great Gate of Kiev. Again, we had the conductor as generalissimo, strutting and preening in front of his troops as he led them in glorious triumph, with enough firepower kept in reserve for a massive climax.

Easy listening? I’m all for it.

****1