This concert's programme booklet noted that the evening contained both Beethoven’s last piano concerto and Shostakovich’s last symphony. But the symphony was its composer’s last orchestral work written four years before he died, while Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major is from his middle period, and essentially a happy work – not an adjective often used for Beethoven despite the “Spring” violin sonata, the “Harp” string quartet, the even numbered symphonies and much else. Here though the first movement from the London Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda was certainly positive, if occasionally loud and aggressive, with an extravagant marcato beat in some sections of the first movement that denied the music expressive breathing room, though they found that in abundance in the later movements. Perhaps the “Emperor” tag used in some countries encourages this parade-ground manner.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican (3 Feb 2022)

Perhaps it could be redubbed the “Empress” Concerto, for the playing of Beatrice Rana on her LSO debut was regal throughout, revealing the work’s beauties as much as its grandeur. Her opening excursions up and down the keyboard were grand enough, but she also found the lyrical heart even in cadential moments. In the serenity of the Adagio her ornamented commentary on the opening theme was exquisite. Her teasing transition into the finale had the LSO and Noseda poised and ready, before she launched the rising main theme with élan. The grander episodes of this rondo were relished by the LSO, while in the delicate ones the soloist demonstrated admirable control of phrase and tone, with many sparkling runs and trills. She and the timpanist colluded in the coda to wind the tension right down before the final flourish.

No one has ever called much of Shostakovich’s output happy, since irony is never far away, not least in his Symphony no.15 in A major, first performed fifty years ago last month and still puzzling the commentators. Perhaps it is because it yields its secrets so slowly that audiences, like that at the Barbican, still fill concert halls to hear it live. But as Churchill remarked of Russia herself, “it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. If it can be elucidated by a really fine performance, then we all came closer to solving the riddle, if not fully unwrapping the mystery, this evening.

Noseda and the LSO were on fine form as they continued their impressive Shostakovich series. The insouciant opening, with glockenspiel, flute and pizzicato strings amusing themselves while waiting for the music proper to start, was spot on in manner. Carefree in feeling, yet careful in its tight synchronisation, even the quotation of the galop from Rossini’s William Tell overture was tucked in as if the trumpet decided to join in the fun.

The long slow movement switched from fun to profundity. Several leaders have solos here, and those from the cello of David Cohen near the start and the funereal trombone of Helen Vollam stood out, as did the extensive solo contributions from leader Roman Simovic. But even an army of generals needs direction, and Noseda plumbed the depths of this score. Balance was ideal and the pace always felt right. In the finale the emotional weight of some quotations increased, especially the ‘Fate’ motif from Wagner’s Ring, whose ominous portent suggested the LSO brass had been moonlighting in Bayreuth. But then the coda’s astonishing “tick-tock” of percussion, clockwork non-music from which any feeling has drained, finally fell silent – riddling, mysterious, enigmatic still.