Halloween, we are told, is a night filled with scary creatures. And if you’re a pianist, they don’t come scarier than Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, in which the composer seems almost gratuitous in his demands that the pianist’s hands zoom from one end of the keyboard to the other. At the Barbican last night, none of this bothered Denis Matsuev, who produced perfect accuracy in the most death-defying leaps of the left hand crossing over the right to the far reaches of his keyboard.

Denis Matsuev © Mark Allan
Denis Matsuev
© Mark Allan

Matsuev’s playing has often been described as “muscular” and this concerto was no exception. It’s moderately astounding that anyone can play this concerto at all and highly impressive that it can be played with this level of vigour and precision. But it didn’t make for the most romantic reading, which is a shame as the concerto contains some gorgeously lush romantic moments as well as Prokofiev’s more spiky, unpredictable writing. And in spite of the fact that the London Symphony Orchestra have played this concerto several times with Gianandrea Noseda in the last few years, it wasn’t clear that they were enjoying the experience: Noseda cut an animated figure on the podium, but there were a lot of heads buried in scores and timings weren’t always perfect, the phrasing was somewhat flat and the orchestra somewhat too loud for Matsuev to be heard at his best. This was a crisp and even performance of a work that has more to offer.

Both Matsuev’s encore and the concert’s opening work delivered more. Lyadov’s Music Box was a delicious petit-four, played with such delicacy and lightness of touch that it might have been designed as an antidote to the weightiness of Matsuev’s Prokofiev. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes gave the LSO the opportunity to show off their remarkable timbre. The violins made an impact from the very start with the soft high ostinato which represents a grey dawn, played with noticeably low vibrato but still achieving shimmer. The brass which joined them was round and carefully calibrated, increasing in urgency until the orchestra brought us a clear rendering of the awesome majesty of the sea. Introduced by a lovely viola solo, the closing Passacaglia was scarier than any Halloween mask as the villagers close in on Grimes’ hut, steadily increasing in power until a powerful climax, with the closing diminuendo coloured by gamelan-like soft percussion.

Gianandrea Noseda © Mark Allan
Gianandrea Noseda
© Mark Allan

If the LSO seemed uncomfortable with the Prokofiev, there were no such woes in the second big Russian work of the evening (the series is labelled “Russian Roots”), Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor. From the start, they seemed to relish the opportunities that the composer provides to simply deliver fabulous instrumental sound: whether it be horns, flutes, cor anglais or any of the many different types of string writing, every player was on their mettle. It’s not that Noseda had changed much in his style of conducting – the same elegance of his long fingers, the same moves between specific cues and more general bouncing up and down – it’s that the orchestra were following his lead in a way that they hadn’t in the Prokofiev.

All this in spite of the fact that in this work, you can argue that Shostakovich is even more unpredictable than Prokofiev. It’s a symphony which starts out with slow and reflective strings (a touch loud, in this rendering, for such a contemplative piece), the cor anglais painting the darkness in our soul and the trumpet replying to provide consolation. After lengthy virtuosic woodwind sections, the harps punctuate a return to the violins as the main protagonists as the movement ends with extreme delicacy.

The second and third movements – far shorter than the first – are simply mad, the composer at his most mercurial sarcastic. The clarinet solo in the second movement is unhinged, the cross rhythms fascinating, the gallop à la William Tell never short of thrilling but also exceptionally humorous. No wonder Stalin’s censors had no idea what to make of it.

***11