A whiff of sulphur shrouded the Barbican this evening as Liszt met Mahler beneath the Mephistophelean glare of Gianandrea Noseda. The London Symphony Orchestra played like demons in a gripping reading of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Alice Sara Ott’s provided will-o-the-wisp pianism in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. Sparks flew.

Gianandrea Noseda © Ramella & Giannese
Gianandrea Noseda
© Ramella & Giannese

Some conductors cry off pairing anything with Mahler’s Sixth – not so Noseda, who opted for Liszt to pave the way for Mahler. For a great piano virtuoso, Liszt’s piano concertos don’t command much respect in critical circles, which is a pity as they’re both entertaining, if not as emotionally deep as some concertos. The Second, less traditional than the First, is made up of six different sections, but is played through as one continuous movement. Rather than guide the LSO as mere accompaniment to Ott, Noseda’s solution was to approach the work as a tone poem, instilling fiery drama in the orchestral playing.

Barefoot, Ott brought wonderful imagination and a sensitive touch to her playing. Rippling scales cascaded from her fingers before demonic bass rumblings were echoed by the LSO strings. While she had the necessary heft where required, this was no routine piano-bash; the Allegro moderato third section was eloquently phrased and was matched by the most tender cello solo from Rebecca Gilliver. Noseda, maintaining keen eye contact with his pianist, drove the Allegro deciso on rampantly, while Ott added mercurial wit to the Allegro animato finale to bring the concerto to a stampeding close.

If the Liszt crackled, the Mahler was white-hot. Noseda brought incredible rhythmic precision and ferocity to the grim first movement march, while the strings played the impassioned ‘Alma theme’ with intense sweetness. This was Mahler given the full widescreen Technicolor treatment, every section responding with dazzling brilliance. The orchestra lurched from the abyss to the pastoral in an instant, amidst the off-stage clanking of cow-bells.

Dramatically, Noseda launched into the nightmarish scherzo attacca from the first movement, tightening his vice-like grip. This was a real descent into the inferno, with theatrical conducting very much in the Gergiev style; staring eyes and jabbing baton bringing out incredible dynamic swells in the string playing. Shrieking woodwinds chilled to the bone.

The calm after the storm, the Andante had all the intimacy of a love-letter – a song without words – with the blossoming string theme initially taken at a flowing pace by Noseda, shaping and moulding it with his bare hands. Occasionally pulling back the tempo, it breathed like a great orchestral sigh.

Noseda never let the tension flag once in the long finale, driving on from climax to climax, undercut at each turn, the orchestra responding with vivid playing. The two hammer blows had a touch of theatre about them, Neil Percy raising the hammer high above his head, even with a twirl, as if to signal to the audience the executioner’s axe about to fall. The brass, ranged across the platform, displayed not only its customary laser attack, but also its wonderful weighty depth in the sombre lament towards the symphony’s end, before delivering the brutal final blow. A staggering, exhausting, high-octane performance.