How, dear reader, do you like your Romantic music? Last night’s London Symphony Orchestra programme at the Barbican offered a span of choices, with overtly programmatic Tchaikovsky and abstract, classically structured Dvořák either side of the Elgar Cello Concerto, which sits somewhere in between. In the hands of Pablo Heras-Casado, results were decidedly mixed.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho
The highlight of the concert proved to be the Elgar, played by Alisa Weilerstein in a distinctive style: radiant calm allied to total commitment to the music. Weilerstein’s rendering was in no way flamboyant or mannered. There are no grand gestures. The timbre is clean and pure, although never cold. There is no excess of vibrato, nothing to grab the attention. But what comes across is intensely personal and in the first movement, I felt as if she was exploring the music for the first time, that the music was leading her in some direction that was not yet clear until the movement reaches its pizzicato end and morphs into the impish quicksilver of the scherzo. It’s complete illusion, of course – Weilerstein must have played this concerto dozens if not hundreds of times – but made for a compelling musical journey.

Weilerstein’s rapport with Heras-Casado was palpable. Pin sharp coordination between soloist and orchestra gave us notable moments when the orchestral figure seemed to grow out of a declining cello note, with Weilerstein’s concentration and inner calm contrasting with the explosive romanticism of the orchestra. The magic was maintained until the fourth movement (not the highlight of the work at the best of times), where a somewhat over-deliberate tempo allowed the attention to wander, with the closing coda not quite reaching the intensity levels one would hope for.

This is Shakespeare anniversary year and therefore an opportunity for orchestras to perform many less-often-heard Shakespeare-related works. Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest proved itself to be a work that I would love to hear more often, with a pleasing classical symmetry of construction enclosing a cornucopia of orchestral colour. The gentle rolling of the sea that frames the work, the pomp of Prospero’s grandeur, the romance of Ferdinand and Miranda and the light-footed grace of Ariel are all painted from a vivid palette with the touch of a master. But it’s a work that needs utter precision from the orchestra, with many solo wind lines fearfully exposed wind lines. In this performance, things did not start well: the first half was marred by too many minor timing imperfections to allow the work its full sweep, and the overall effect was rather lacklustre. The orchestra seemed to recover in the slow romantic passage, and by the time we reached the second storm sequence and Prospero’s fanfare, the results were much improved. I was disappointed that such a high quality orchestra could open a concert apparently not properly warmed up.

After the interval, the same word “lacklustre” applied to the performance of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor. The playing was never short of totally competent, the strings and many of the instrumentalists producing individually excellent sound. But I found myself wondering where the “wow” factor was going to come from: I want the conductor of a Dvořák symphony to sweep me up and carry me with it, which Heras-Casado signally failed to do. His conducting style is a strange one – there is much waving of both arms together from low by his sides to high above his head – and did not give me confidence that he was really able to shape the orchestral phrases. There were occasional highlights: the return to the scherzo from the trio caught me up in its infectious 3/4 rhythm, the entry to the fourth movement coda was thrilling, as were many of the interventions from timpanist Antoine Bedewi and several solos from principal flautist Adam Walker. But these were too few to lift the performance past the ordinary. In a concert of three substantial works, only Weilerstein’s intensity and intimacy succeeded in doing so.