Two London musical institutions – the London Symphony Orchestra, and Sir Antonio Pappano – joined forces to present a programme based on fairy tales. Consisting of Ravel’s five-movement Ma mère l’oye and Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, it ended up being a less-than-enchanting performance.

The best part of the evening was in fact neither of the orchestral works, but rather Janine Jansen’s performance of Bartok’s Violin Concerto no. 1 between the two. In contrast with his more popular Second Concerto, this lush, post-romantic work complemented the Ravel and Tchaikovsky beautifully. Though Jansen is known for her gritty intensity as a performer, she luxuriated in the Straussian harmonies of the first movement with a gorgeous, silvery tone. Particularly striking was the opening of the concerto, a solo rising arpeggio played with the utmost intimacy. The scherzo-like second movement suited Jansen perfectly, alternating between powerfully aggressive and slower, almost melancholic, sections. Though it wasn’t always pretty, her sheer passion and intensity impressed; certainly a powerhouse reading of one of the most demanding concertos in the repertoire. For the encore, LSO leader Roman Simovic joined Jansen in two of Bartok's 44 Duos for 2 violins - chamber music at the very highest level.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics

If only the rest of the concert were up to that high standard. Despite his vast experience with vocal music, Pappano's conducting of Ravel's deceptively simple miniatures was choppy and metronomical, with little sense of the natural ebb and flow of the line. The most unfortunate moment was the penultimate phrase of “Le jardin féerique”, surely one of the most stunning moments in Ravel’s oeuvre – instead of allowing the phrase to expand and grow, Pappano barrelled through in a most graceless fashion. The orchestra too seemed not to be on top form, though many of the individual solos were lovely. The overall sound was thick and sometimes strident, obscuring Ravel’s masterful orchestration.

Thankfully, the Tchaikovsky in the second half of the concert fared better. Instead of the standard suite, we were instead presented with what was termed “a personal selection of highlights from Act II put together by our conductor”. Essentially this amounted to the entire act without the final scene, ending with the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation and coda followed by the Adagio from the pas de deux. Throughout, the orchestra sounded warm and lush, with Pappano much more in his element. Unfortunately, it was far from perfect – ensemble issues threatened to derail the orchestra in the Trepak and the Chinese Dance, both taken at an absurdly fast pace. The same issue dogged the middle portion of the final pas de deux, which overall sounded bombastic rather than opulently romantic. Despite this there was much to enjoy, particularly the immaculate flute and piccolo solos. Though Tchaikovsky and Ravel’s music cannot fail to charm, it was disappointing that overall, this concert of fairy tales was short on magic.