A bouncing Czech and a spurned Hungarian form the back-story to this concert of music by two composers who enthusiastically embraced the spirit of nationalism in music. A familiar work by Dvořák and a less familiar piece by Bartók created a happy partnership of music by two composers whose fascination with the folk music of their native countries permeates their works.

As a prelude, we were treated to an infrequently performed piece by Dvořák with a Shakespearean theme, in this the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death. The Othello Overture was written as the third part of a trilogy called "Nature, Life and Love", and captures the "love" element. Harding crafted the LSO's performance with characteristic care and attention, with lush and light tones in the strings and some nice lilting in the winds, although there were minor intonation and timing issues. Nevertheless, the overall impact of the superb sound of the LSO was impressive in this colourful and expressive piece from a mature Dvořák.

Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers | DG
Lisa Batiashvili
© Anja Frers | DG

Behind Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 1 is a bittersweet story of spurned love and rejection. Bartók wrote the concerto in 1907-08 as a tribute to violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was in love at the time. However, Bartók's feelings towards her were not reciprocated, and she rejected both his courtship and the concerto, although she did keep the manuscript hidden away. As hers was the only copy of the score, the piece did not see the light of day until after she and Bartók had died, and the composer refused to be drawn into conversations about the work while he was alive. It was first performed in 1958 after her copy was bequeathed to Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher, but it still sits in the shadows of Bartók's more well-known second violin concerto, which has become a classic in the repertoire.

Lisa Batiashvili's beautifully lyrical style and polished tone were perfectly suited to this concerto. Her playing was sensitive and majestic as well as gutsy, aggressive and virtuosic.  In temperament, the concerto is passionate, highly melodic and chromatic, very much in the mould of the late romantic, early 20th century music reminiscent of Richard Strauss, but with a hint of breaking new ground more akin to Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But it is also rhythmic with hints of folk music and characteristic Hungarian vigour.

The first movement is Bartók's romantic depiction of an idealised Stefi Geyer, "celestial and inward", which Batiashvili played with profound intensity and heartfelt longing, expressing the anguish of love through dignified and reflective eyes. The second movement displays Geyer's "cheerful, witty, amusing" character. Here, Batiashvili was acerbic and skittish, with crisp articulation and a touch of mischievousness. Harding and the LSO provided first-rate support, with soloist and orchestra perfectly balanced and synchronised. Although this is relatively early Bartók, this piece shows not only his prowess in writing for solo violin but also his maturity as an orchestral composer.

Daniel Harding © Julian Hargreaves
Daniel Harding
© Julian Hargreaves

As far as the symphonic repertoire is concerned, there are few more joyous expressions of the Bohemian folk music style and pure melody than Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 in G major. In contrast to the ever popular New World symphony and the more brooding and turbulent seventh symphony, Dvořák's Eighth is cheerful and unerringly lyrical. Harding and the LSO played with alacrity, navigating the generous peppering of rustic melodies and rhythms with characteristic flair and commitment.

My only difficulty was in the first movement. There was a genuine feeling of excitement and panache in the playing, but there was a sense of an overall gloss being applied, and we needed to hear individual instruments and textures more - the scrubbing and scraping of strings, more bounce, more clarity between winds and brass. It was indeed a refined and polished performance, but it felt a little overshaped and slightly heavy in places.

However, all this changed in the second movement, as Harding and the LSO embraced the lilting sway and showed plenty of poise with subtle changes of pace. Harding certainly captured the grazioso element of the third movement with some nice rubato phrasing and an effervescent molto vivace section at the end, and the fourth movement drew the most bucolic Czech-like playing from the LSO, with lots of grit mixed with light, delicate touches. In describing the trumpet fanfare at the beginning of the movement, Rafael Kubelik once said that "in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle - they always call to the dance". Harding drew every ounce of this out of the LSO, and although the calm passage towards the end was rather drawn out, it did make the frenetic climax even more striking. On the whole, full marks to Harding and the LSO for capturing the Bohemian essence of Dvořák's folk-inspired music with unashamed fervour.