Carl Nielsen had an exceptional understanding of the nuances of woodwind instruments, and when playing the parts he wrote for flautists, the affection is almost palpable. Towards the end of his composing career, he thought of different orchestral instruments as having distinct personalities, and composed their interactions accordingly. While Nielsen may have once said that “the composer has had to follow the mild character of the instrument” (source: The Carl Nielsen Society), and while there were certainly periods in his Flute Concerto in which the flute floats tranquillo above the rabble, there are also moments of impatient spikiness, and the liquid, sinuous cadenzas - as played by LSO principal Gareth Davies - contained bursts of fire. The concerto is not in the traditional form of a soloist with orchestral accompaniment; the solo flute moves around engaging different groups and individuals in conversation like the host of a party, chatting with an amiable clarinet, cheering up a grumpy bassoon, drawing out a shy solo viola, refusing to be annoyed by the interruptions of a rather drunk bass trombone, and occasionally calling the room to attention with, for example, a series of high trilled Fs. The dialogue passages worked extremely well, as one might expect when the flute soloist is playing with real-life friends and colleagues. Another important characteristic of this piece (and, perhaps Nielsen’s conception of flute-as-personality) is its ambiguity: there are threes against twos, and D minor on top of E flat within the first few bars, and many of the composer’s trademark alternating major/minor tremolos. In some hands the superimpositions can be jarring and the tonal ambiguity floundering, but Xian Zhang’s supple touch managed to convey feelings of both security and freedom.

Gareth Davies © London Symphony Orchestra
Gareth Davies
© London Symphony Orchestra

Davies is well-known not only to flute aficionados but to many more, through his writing for LSO On Tour, which manages to be one of the most consistently entertaining music blogs on the internet, while also providing genuine insight into both the music and the lives of working orchestral musicians. In this spirit of communication and engagement with new audiences, not content with simply performing a flute concerto, earlier in the day he gave a workshop on it for young flautists, that they might better understand and appreciate the work when they came to hear it. The Barbican seemed full of enthusiastic young people with flute cases slung over their shoulders, and I imagine both Davies and Nielsen have a host of new fans.

Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) was inspired by glamorous socialite and promising composition student Alma Schindler. Did he picture Alma as the beautiful watery heroine of Andersen’s fairy tale? Quite the contrary: as Alma had just rejected him (in order to become Frau Mahler), it is more likely that he identified with the unrequited passion of the unfortunate title character, who sacrifices her tongue and voice to a magic spell in order to become human, only then to see her prince marry another. Fortunately, Zemlinsky was not required to sacrifice his compositional voice in the pursuit of love, and The Mermaid – while not a resounding success on premiere, and subsequently lost for more than half a century – has in the last couple of decades gained popularity and steadily made its way into the orchestral repertoire. The music does not follow the story line for line, but depicts many of the key aspects – the ocean setting, the storm that shipwrecks the prince, a ball at the mer-king’s palace. Overall, I found this the least compelling of the three pieces in this concert, although many parts were superb. The great range of colours and textures produced by the LSO worked extremely well in the sound-painting of seascapes: swelling waves from the lower strings and ripples from the upper, slippery sea-creatures from the cor anglais and bass clarinet, and flecks of foam from the flutes. Zhang whipped up a furious storm scene, her feet sometimes leaving the podium in the process. Unfortunately, in the thicker-textured, lusher sections the sea tended rather to turn to syrup and the rolling waves had a touch of sea-sickness.

The world of Bartok’s pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (after a story by Lengyel) could hardly be more different: somewhere in a big city, three thuggish tramps use an attractive young prostitute accomplice to lure men to a room in order to mug them. Their first two ‘catches’ are poor themselves, and so thrown out as worthless, but the third – to their delight – is a rich Mandarin. However, when, consumed with lust, he throws himself at the girl, it transpires that he is impervious to blows (as well as to suffocation, stabbing, and being hung from the light fixture). Only when she finally allows him a free and unresisted embrace does he regain his mortality and die. Unlike the Zemlinsky, there is no evidence that the choice of subject matter was inspired by any event from Bartok’s own life. This performance of the 1926 Suite from the ballet was simply one of the best that I have heard. The urban cityscape of the opening minutes was like being plunged into the centre of a giant machine of clanging metal, pumping pistons and dangerously sharp edges. This intensity and physicality continued throughout, including the seductive dances from the clarinet, and the hammering finale. All in all, Zhang and the LSO gave a performance which brought out the many colours and textures of a varied programme, and in the process brought to life a host of interesting characters.