Ambiguity is a fine thing. Under dictatorships it protects you from the certainty that would otherwise convict you. Shostakovich was not the only Soviet composer to tread the tightrope of never straying too far from the official line without ever completely endorsing it. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is a further case in point. Is it really a celebration of Soviet man, the better kind of human being that apologists of the day would have had you believe, or is it more of a sinister reflection on life itself? There are few symphonies where the Scherzo is in a minor key, the slow movement in a major one.

Gianandrea Noseda
© LSO | Andy Paradise

Gianandrea Noseda, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, made a strong case for this Janus-faced work. In the opening movement there was teeming energy as well as cheerful optimism, reflecting the triumph of good over evil as WW2 drew to a close, but the skies above soon began to darken. In the big climax towards the end, Noseda unleashed full-throated orchestral roars, the sharpness of cymbal crashes, an insistent side drum, a cutting edge to the trumpets and savagery from the lower brass suffusing the orchestral landscape with an ominous chill.

There was more than a touch of menace to the portentous march sequence in the Scherzo, like jackboots being slowly lifted up and then steadily advancing with juggernaut-like inevitability. In the Adagio Noseda and an LSO in commanding form explored its twilight world, the spooky elements underlined with aching cries from woodwind and brass together with waves of anguish from the strings. This was an awe-inspiring leviathan, nostrils flared, teeth bared, jaws wide open. Only in the Finale did Noseda’s focus falter slightly, the Allegro giocoso assuming a meandering quality rather than being fully charged throughout.

Simone Lamsma and the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Andy Paradise

There was no ambiguity whatsoever in Simone Lamsma’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. It is a long time since I have heard such a confident statement of personality in this work and such an unashamed tribute to the Romantic spirit. The magic was there from the start, her smoky, smouldering tone drawing the listener in, robust and earthy in the lowest register, a strong and passionate sound where it mattered but equally capable of the tenderest whispers above the stave. You sensed the lungs slowly opening to the maximum extent, the diaphragm tightening and flattening to absorb all the ambient oxygen, Lamsma’s powerful bowing arm extracting every tonal shading and dynamic variation. 

The Canzonetta opened to the gentlest of entries, the first horn softly supportive in the background and a gurgling clarinet conjuring up the heat haze of a summer’s day. It was her effortless capacity for allowing the violin to speak, with all the time in the world, as she had already done in the first movement cadenza, which most impressed here. There was plenty of pedal to the metal in the Finale, where Noseda perfectly matched the flexibility of Lamsma’s tempi, the sparkle of the LSO textures allied to the soloist’s scintillating playing. But there was another quality here which I have rarely encountered elsewhere: an impishness and delight in unabashed playfulness, most evident in the little extra touches of rubato and delicious slides.

Simone Lamsma, Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Andy Paradise

At the start of the concert George Stevenson’s Vanishing City had a tantalising link to the main work. The title refers to the way in which the skyline of wartime Leningrad was deliberately obscured in order to thwart aerial bombardment. As an inspirational idea it promised a lot, yet a succession of sirens, explosions and ethereal effects failed to resonate beyond the five minutes of its span.