Someone should have bought Ottorino Respighi a time machine and shifted him forwards into the golden age of cinema. And, while they were at it, spirited Tony Pappano back to join him. From the first notes of Roman Festivals, we were not so much in Rome as in Hollywood and Ben Hur: huge orchestral forces deployed on an epic scale.

Lise de la Salle © Lynn Goldsmith
Lise de la Salle
© Lynn Goldsmith
No-one would ever describe Feste Romane as the most subtle piece of music they've ever heard. The orchestral colours are vivid to the point of garish, with no less than ten percussionists. But for a musical romp, you couldn't ask for better and you couldn't ask for better orchestral playing than Pappano conjured up from the LSO. Time and again, I was wowed by some individual instrument or piece of ensemble: the haunting sound of off-stage trombones, a super-lush string interlude, a perfectly blended bassoon-cello-horn mix, klezmer-like clarinet or the extended brass section in full cry.

The subtlety in this concert came at the beginning, in the shape of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninov starts off by treating the famous theme of the A minor Caprice with impish humour: a dozen suggestions of the theme appear in various combinations of instruments before the original is revealed. As an opening number of a concert, it's a recipe for a triumph or a train wreck: the orchestral texture is very sparse and the music is choc-a-block with handovers between different instruments, all of which are completely exposed. Total precision is required, and total precision is what Pappano, the LSO and soloist Lise de la Salle gave it.

De la Salle isn't the most muscular player of Rachmaninov. Where she shines is in the filigree intricacy, when Rachmaninov spins a spider's web of notes around a theme as it moves up and down the keyboard at pace. De la Salle's articulation is exceptionally clear: if she were an opera singer, you would say that her diction was perfect. You might also accuse her of being a shade underpowered, but then Pappano knows all about balancing an orchestra against a soloist. He was matchless in his manipulation of dynamics to ensure that the piano was always audible, and De la Salle was impressively co-ordinated with the orchestra, particularly given that she was a last minute replacement for the injured Alice Sara Ott. One particular moment summed it up: a fast, rippling piano phrase which ended on a clear high note which has to coincide perfectly with a unison note from the glockenspiel. The timing was perfect to the microsecond. At the other end of the keyboard, the big closing piano phrase of the Dies Irae was memorably imposing.

The other two parts of Respighi's Roman trilogy, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, continued to provide opportunities for orchestral virtuosity and showed that Respighi could paint his musical pictures with a more subtly graded palette than Roman Festivals. Insistent string figures gave us the calm of dawn at the Valle Giulia, rudely interrupted by the shriek of clarinets that announce the crowds around the Triton Fountain; the following diminuendo was expertly handled. Big, Wagnerian forces returned at the Trevi.

The most evocative of the three was kept for last, with Pines of Rome. The boisterous games of children at the gardens of the Villa Borghese contrasted with the sudden darkness of the catacombs; Pappano was exceptional at shifting the LSO through its gears, moving between big climaxes and gentle schmaltz with aplomb. Delicate romance with the nightingale at the Gianicolo led us to the tramp of the Roman legions of bygone years along the Via Appia, at the end of which Pappano really let the orchestra rip, resplendent brass, broad grins everywhere and timpanist Nigel Thomas allowed to hit his instrument as hard as he can ever have wished for.

Not the most cerebral of concerts – but magnificent entertainment. And in a sense, that imaginary time machine of mine did really get built, since John Williams recognises Respighi as a major influence.