“Russian Roots” is the title of Gianandrea Noseda’s ongoing series with the London Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of Russian repertoire rather than anything to do with the conductor’s – Milanese – origins. Noseda was, however, greatly supported by Valery Gergiev at the outset of his career, invited to become Principal Guest Conductor at the Mariinsky in 1997, where he honed his craft. So there are definitely traces of Russian dirt under his fingernails and it was fascinating to watch him conduct Gergiev’s repertoire.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

There are more differences than similarities. True, both Noseda and Gergiev possess a dark, almost demonic stare, but their conducting styles differ widely. Noseda’s baton sweeps in long, elegant lines as opposed to Gergiev’s stabby toothpick or fluttering fingers. Noseda sculpts the music in long lines, whereas Gergiev is more concerned with living “in the moment”, his Mariinsky players often kept on the edges of their seats.

It was at the Mariinsky that Rimsky-Korsakov’s gloriously titled opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya premiered in 1907. By strange coincidence, I heard Gergiev conduct the Mariinsky in a splendid account of the Suite just last month. Noseda and the LSO were polished, the birdcalls in the Forest Scene evoking the Forest Murmurs episode from Wagner’s Siegfried, and the violins impersonated balalaikas nimbly in the nail-breaking strumming of the Wedding Procession. But the Apotheosis lacked a strong sense of pantheistic spirituality however noisily the bells and brass finale rang out.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, though, Noseda was much more a chip off the old block, conducting an account full of impetuosity, impatience and nerve-shredding tension. Chris Richards’ sepulchral clarinet solo, with beautifully shaded dynamics, set the fateful tone. Noseda’s use of rubato pulled phrases and tempi around, almost always to dramatic advantage. He refused to linger over the clarinet and bassoon lines midway through the Andantino cantabile, making the icy brass interventions that cut in slash even deeper into the veins. The Waltz was light on its toes, although Fate still hovered like a ghost over the ballroom. The Finale was everything it should be – the noble theme erupting into a frenzy of charged emotions, stoically battling on even though you just know Fate is going to triumph in the end. Noseda and the LSO went at it with a fervour and volatility that proved devastating.

That volatility also made an appearance in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, where Janine Jansen gave a dramatic reading, spurred on by Noseda’s aggressive response in the opening movement. Jansen’s tone was wonderfully rich and full, her double-stopping robust. The angry, at times blustery, take on the first movement heightened the contrast with romantic approach to the Adagio, phrased in lusciously long paragraphs, before a joyous, songful finale that really danced. Offering a segue to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth after the interval, Jansen's encore was the composer’s Mélodie, a tender pendant with string accompaniment that was balm to the soul.

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