It is good news for fans of British 20th-century music that Sir Antonio Pappano has taken up the baton in works by composers such as Tippett and Vaughan Williams. With his roots in England, Italy and the USA, he brings an international perspective and aesthetic to his conducting, which is needed to help promote the works of these important composers to a worldwide audience. It is also gratifying to see the London Symphony Orchestra performing these composers who have largely been absent from their repertoire since the death of Sir Colin Davis.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello

The performance of Tippett’s life-enhancing Concerto for Double String Orchestra that opened the evening was very impressive. The opening Allegro con brio was sharp and dynamic, melting into the generous lyrical passages with ease. The slow movement is one of the great beauties of string music and every mellow homogenous phrase produced by the LSO strings confirmed that point. The playful and scurrying finale exuded joy, with gritty Hindemithian moments that led inevitably to a most gloriously rich incarnation of the main lyrical theme across the two orchestras, to round off a spot-on account of a charmer of a piece.

Elgar wrote his Sea Pictures in 1899 and it was an instant hit on the back of his success with the Enigma Variations that same year. The cycle represents the best of the composer’s songs and has been taken up by many leading singers including, most famously, Dame Janet Baker. Karen Cargill took on the mantle with some style and Pappano’s approach was full-bloodedly operatic and delicately Mahlerian by turns. Cargill very effectively coloured her voice to fit the various moods of the songs. She floated notes exquisitely in the quieter songs, particularly In Haven and showed us her Wagnerian credentials in the dramatic final song, The Swimmer.

Most impressive of all was Pappano’s well-prepared, glamorous interpretation of Vaughan Williams furious Symphony no. 4 in F minor. The first of the composer’s symphonies not to be given a title, it broke new ground in terms of its formal tightness, harmonic daring and expressionistic mood. In this uncompromising performance, the levels of intensity achieved by its final bars made it seem almost like a British Rite of Spring.

The opening Allegro was as taken at an ideal tempo, not as fast as in the composer's own brilliantly conducted recording, but faster than most and with a cleanness of delivery that revealed the carefully conceived intricacies of the orchestration. The final pianissimo ending was beautifully achieved by some vibrato-free string playing. The icy waters of the slow movement, with its bitonal drifting that coalesces at the climaxes with brass fanfares, was again perfectly paced and characterised by exquisite woodwind playing. The other-worldly flute solo at the end of movement has never sounded so bloodless and haunting.

The Scherzo was taken at quite a lick. Its tricky rhythms, which drive forward but never settle to any real pattern, were cleanly delivered by the whole orchestra with each of the dramatic moments impactful and positive. The finale was the tour de force that it was intended to be. Nothing about this performance sounded polite, half-hearted or technically insecure. This barrage of anger and sarcasm moved forward relentlessly, counterbalanced with a quiet section reminiscent of the end to the first movement, beautifully done here. After this, the negative forces return with renewed strength. The fugal epilogue was spectacular with the power and accuracy of the playing carrying all before it into the abyss. The final, brutally abrupt chord seemed like a door had been slammed shut behind one with no way out.

*****