Dvořák’s Sixth cannot claim to plumb any tragic depths, nor Brahms’ Double Concerto any virtuosic heights. Instead, both works ooze warmth. Brahms’ concerto is suffused with a mellow glow, while Dvořák blazes away in sunny D major, full of unbuttoned joy. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, returning to the London Philharmonic for the first time in over a year, set the barometer firmly to ‘Fair’ in a pair of performances wreathed in smiles.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve
However, the evening opened in dark, sombre mood. Dvořák’s Othello was the final segment in a triptych of overtures, originally titled Nature, Life and Love. Of these, ‘Life’ – retitled Carnival – has proved the most popular in the concert hall, yet Othello (Love) is an extremely fine work. Here, it raised the curtain on the LPO’s Shakespeare 400 commemorations with a dramatic flourish. It’s difficult to believe that Dvořák hadn’t heard Verdi’s opera Otello (1887) when he set about composing his overture four years later. The stark string writing is reminiscent of the scene in Verdi’s Act IV where Otello appears in the sleeping Desdemona’s bedchamber, wracked by jealousy, resolved to “put out the light”. Nézet-Séguin drew a ripe string sound from the LPO and unleashed fearsome brass playing in the score’s violent denouement.

Brahms’ Double Concerto is easily his least weighty, with little sense of competition between the protagonists. Violin and cello spar gently with each other, but competitive sport is largely replaced by amiable dialogue. Lisa Batiashvili and Maximilian Hornung were well-matched conversationalists, communicating via smiles and keen eye contact. Sweet-toned rather than opulent, unafraid to dip into a sinewy timbre for the first movement’s tempestuous close, their sounds were well matched too. The playing in the central Andante was radiant, Batiashvili spinning a silky line, while the finale skipped along in carefree manner. The orchestra supported attentively even when it wasn’t playing – the LPO cellists almost all craning forward to observe Horning’s opening soliloquy.

Nézet-Séguin has an infectious presence on the podium. Stretching up on tiptoe or feet planted wide, he rarely stays still for long. At his most animated, he stabs away furiously with his baton, parrying and thrusting like a fencer; at his most tender, his cupped hands gently coax, as if tickling a cat under its chin. And his smile. Throughout the performance of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 6 in D major, he barely stopped beaming at his faithful charges. Composed for the eminent – and influential – conductor Hans Richter, it is a buoyant work, bursting with good humour. It opens with the most lyrical of melodies, immediately setting a pastoral tone. Highlights included sensitively shaped flute solos from Sue Thomas and Stewart McIlwham in the Adagio and crisply articulated furiant rhythms in the Scherzo. The finale doffs its cap to Brahms’ Second (also in D major) with its gentle string theme, breaking into a boisterous swagger.

There may be little profound to say in Dvořák’s symphony, but that didn’t stop Nézet-Séguin and the LPO telling it most beguilingly.