“To lose one performer may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness” as Lady Bracknell might have said of this concert. Wilde’s sharp-tongued battleaxe would probably not have had sympathy with Valery Gergiev, beset by flu, and Janine Jansen, suffering from a severe case of sinusitis. Perhaps she might have had a good word to say about Susanna Mälkki, who jumped in to make her debut conducting the London Symphony Orchestra a year earlier than anticipated and Christian Tetzlaff, the highly regarded German virtuoso, both standing in at exceptionally short notice. For this and for retaining the original programme, both they and the management should be commended, particularly in light of recent cancelled concerts from another orchestra under similar circumstances.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

The programme was appropriately trim for a Sunday evening; the first half was given to Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major. There was much to admire in Tetzlaff's rendition: plush in tone and with particularly fine bowing in the quieter moments when he filed the sound down to a gossamer-thin thread that pushed the bounds of audibility, but without any weakening in stability. In the first movement, after an introduction that felt slightly out of kilter in speed and execution, he displayed perhaps a touch too much aggression in his playing at times, but there was no overt flashiness in his performance, more quick cerebrality than burning emotion.

The Adagio saw an adjustment to this imbalance; there were more opportunities to show off his precision at the top of the violin and there seemed to be a greater sense of feeling to his playing which gave the movement a warmth that was absent in the first. Tetzlaff’s opening to the famous Allegro giocoso was a little too restrained, but lacked nothing in technique. Considering she had little opportunity to prepare with Tetzlaff, Mälkki felt remarkably in tune with his account, with some dynamic playing on the timpani from Antoine Bedewi that lent some extra punch to the piece. Clear and spacious woodwind playing was also appreciable, especially at the start of the first movement and throughout the second.

Also sprach Zarathustra appears to have become Strauss’ London bus; both the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia have performed it within the last month, but nonetheless the score has migrated from the Festival Hall to the Barbican, a classic example of where orchestras could do with a little more coordination. Mälkki’s tempi were problematic and the fourth section “Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften” in particular felt awfully lethargic. There was an absence of confidence in the brass; creaky playing in that famous opening did not substantially improve until the last ten minutes or so when it suddenly became invigorated. Dragan Sredojević’s "Tanzlied" was desperately in need of some energy to give his performance a lift, but the general quality of the strings was high with some particularly fine playing in the precise phrasing of “Von den Hinterweltlern” and there was a pleasing throb from the double-basses which isn’t always noticeable. All that was really needed was an injection of Strauss’ dramatic flair to counterbalance the over-emphasis on the philosophical elements of the work. Under the circumstances though, one has to make allowances and there was no lack of musical intelligence behind the performance of either piece.