Discovering what motivates a composer can be fascinating. Sometimes the impetus for writing a piece comes simply from receiving a commission, but creative inspirations are actually rather diverse and wide-ranging, from the simple to the life-changing. In this concert, the differences in motivations behind pieces from three musical giants could not be more pronounced. For Haydn, his inspiration was the invention of a new musical instrument. Debussy's piece was influenced by images of the sea. For Shostakovich, it was the threat of State persecution and avoiding the labour camps of the Gulag. So basically, it goes from the sublime to the chilling.

Gianandrea Noseda © Ramella & Giannese | Fondazione Teatro Regio di Torino
Gianandrea Noseda
© Ramella & Giannese | Fondazione Teatro Regio di Torino

Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra opened with a landmark piece from the early 20th century. Debussy was riding the crest of a wave when he wrote La Mer, his three symphonic sketches depicting various moods of the sea in his new impressionist musical language, although he personally blanched at having his music described as such. Noseda was himself flowing like the waves as he moved around the podium, coaxing out of the orchestra all the ebb and flow that the music required. Noseda showed mastery over the score by navigating all the subtle and fluid changes of pace and timbre, and creating effective swells in the music by folding in layers of different textures and tone colours. Vibrant shimmering strings, bright winds and warm chocolatey brass pervaded the first movement before turning to the second movement, which Noseda presented as more intense than playful, although he did capture the more energetic and aggressive nature of the sea at play. The drama of the third movement was embodied by driving strings, blaring trumpet declarations and the full might of the LSO holding the tension just long enough before letting rip into an exhilarating finish.

Even at the grand old age of 64, Haydn was still a bit of a pioneer. He wrote his Trumpet Concerto in E flat major to explore the greater versatility of the newly-invented 'keyed' trumpet for his long-time friend Anton Weidinger, who had helped to develop the new instrument. For the first time, the trumpet could now play all the notes of the chromatic scale. Philip Cobb, Principal Trumpet of the LSO, performed Haydn's concerto on a traditional valved trumpet with an appropriately-sized orchestra. Cobb has an unassuming but confident style, bringing out nicely pointed phrases and contrasting them with smooth legato passages. He exercised wonderful control, and had a clear symbiotic relationship with the orchestra. The first movement had Cobb presenting lyrical episodes mixed with stand-to-attention militaristic phrases, before effortlessly embracing the flowing melodies of the Andante over gently pulsing strings. Both soloist and orchestra were lively and springy in the third movement and provided good natural interplay, with Cobb showing a brightness of tone and impressive mastery of the changes in dynamics. Cobb's encore, played on flugelhorn with vibraphone accompaniment, was a mellow 'late-night' affair, which contrasted nicely with the Haydn.

Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5 in D minor was his bold yet risky statement of defiance against the Soviet regime, thinly disguised as an artist's "response to just criticism" following a public falling from grace after two of his works received adverse reaction from the State. He was under pressure to revert to simpler forms of music that were more optimistic in nature and more supportive of the State's ideals of Socialist Realism under Stalin's reign of terror. Following the assertive opening, the cold steel of the strings very effectively created a feeling of distance, with an undercurrent of some more subtle sentiment, as Noseda cultured a meditative temperament before lambasting us with strikingly pounding passages with acidic winds and sinister brass. Aside from a very minor lagging at the beginning of the long accelerando in the first movement, it was all brilliantly controlled and expertly crafted. The biting satire of the military themes was not lost, and the harsh use of extremes of registers in the instruments, so much a trademark of Shostakovich, was delivered emphatically.

Some parts of the second movement felt a little laboured, but ironically this did have the counterbalancing effect of adding to the sardonic nature of the movement, and the trio was appropriately quirky. The Largo was wonderfully poignant, Noseda using his whole body to eke out every sinew to capture that full sense of pained suffering, with particularly fine wind solos. The whispered hush at the end of the movement was a chilling precursor to the chaotic ambiguity of the fourth movement. The orchestra was sharp and committed, with Noseda conveying the full illusion of triumphant optimism while carving through its dark edge, demonstrating starkly the "forced rejoicing" of this piece and with the incessant industrial iron pounding at the close portrayed sufficiently as the giant exclamation mark that it is.