If you believe in conspiracy theories and are a triskaidekaphobe, you will not be surprised by the history of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. Subjected to withering criticism by old masters like Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov, incompetently conducted at the 1897 premiere by Glazunov, and carrying the opus number 13, there you have it! No wonder it was initially a total disaster. 

Enrique Mazzola conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

I will be forever grateful to enlightened producers at the BBC who sixty odd years ago chose the fanfare that opens the final movement for TV’s Panorama and the churning and gurning in its magnificent coda for the documentary series The Lost Peace. Those two extracts made me fall in love with this piece, and I’m entirely with Robert Simpson in regarding it as superior to the other two numbered symphonies.

Conducting the LPO, the dapper Italian maestro Enrique Mazzola, clad in matching red spectacles, tie and shoelaces, made this D minor symphony sound more Italianate than one might imagine, taking it closer than expected to the E minor work that followed a decade or so later. It was there in the sudden surges of warmth and energy from the supple LPO strings, the eloquent woodwind speaking with southern clarity and vibrant colour, and in the heartfelt sweetness of the Larghetto, graced by much cantabile phrasing.

The tempi were all realised with an organic coherence that underlined the function of the opening seven bars of the first movement from which the entire symphony develops, here very properly Grave, but also respecting the Allegro animato of the second movement, which in its skittishness is a Scherzo in all but name, and the fury of the Finale’s con fuoco.

Small details of balance affected the overall colouring. The percussion section was kept very much in check, tambourine and triangle just about audible in the Finale, though the tam-tam relished its two great moments. Even the muted horns at the start just about registered. Such moments exposed a key weakness. For all the melting lyricism of this composer’s early and fateful work, there was insufficient Russian doom and gloom. Nothing was as disturbing and uneasy as it needed to be, a sense of the composer and his world teetering on the point of collapse. Never once did the brass snarl.

Kinan Azmeh and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

A concert with a difference? Yes indeed, for few promoters would balance a neglected masterpiece with the growling, nocturnal qualities of Brett Dean’s Amphitheatre which opened the evening, its gentle percussive effects including the use of drumsticks for the double-basses.  Visually, the way in which the two tuba players crouched like praying mantises before the muted trumpeters was certainly arresting.

Or the presence as soloist in Kinan Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto of the composer himself. Syrian-born, but influenced by idioms of the American continent, not least echoes of Revueltas and Bernstein’s West Side Story, Azmeh knows how to beguile the listener. In just over 20 minutes the clarinet is always part of the sound-picture, weaving in and out of the orchestral textures, which are shorn of all percussion save a pair of side and bongo drums, the rhythms subtly varied, the sonorities often palpably Middle Eastern, and an emotional range which informed a constantly evolving narrative. The solo clarinet was by turns rhapsodic and perky, exuberant and reflective, prayerful and uninhibited, while the accompaniment moved from lamentation to animation. If the inclusion of such a work leads to the new audiences for classical music, and the LPO has shown in recent years why adventurous programming matters enormously, so much the better.