In these difficult times, a reduced audience at the Barbican witnessed a concert of music that didn’t exactly offer much solace, but which possessed a powerful sense of loss and foreboding that seemed entirely timely. Knowing that elsewhere in the world such concerts were being cancelled and that this might be the case in the UK soon, added to the sense of gratitude to be able to experience still such a musical treat.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Liam Hennebry
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Liam Hennebry

Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia is one of the most popular works in the repertoire and like the even more beloved The Lark Ascending, it is not the simple bucolic idyll it is sometimes portrayed as being. In Sir Antonio Pappano and London Symphony Orchestra’s disciplined hands, the true grandeur and depth of feeling in the work have never sounded so potent. Pappano allowed the music to develop at a steady pace, never forcing the tempi or dynamics, holding onto his overall structural vision of the piece with an iron grip. The LSO strings responded with playing of sensitivity and beauty, from the first chord which seemed to emerge from fully formed from the ether to the final richly flourishing cadence. Surely there isn’t a more perfectly balanced and rich string band in the country.

Britten's Violin Concerto is a precocious work that in many ways outshines all the composer’s orchestral music that followed. A lot of nonsense has been written about it being a reaction to the Spanish Civil War, whereas it is clearly the product of grief, namely for the loss of his mother who had died just before it’s composition. It is a work of a particular deep feeling and questing technique that Britten rarely achieved again.

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang produced a dream performance that captured the complete range of moods and emotions. After the usual unfolding of the opening Moderato, held together superbly by Pappano, the fiery Scherzo was a tour de force. However, it was in the final Passacaglia with its variations encompassing so much emotion and technical difficulties for the soloist, that the whole performance showed its worth.

Vaughan Williams' Symphony no. 6 in E minor (1944-47) is one of the composer’s finest achievements and one of the most powerful and original symphonies of the 20th century. However much the composer denied its links to the Second World War, it is evident to anyone listening to the symphony's mix of panic, fear, manic activity and frozen desolation, that this was a biting comment on recent horrific events. And with our own problems brewing and fear and foreboding in the air, it seemed to have a remarkable prescience once again.

Pappano and the LSO delivered the work in all its vivid glory. Nothing measured or underplayed here, the hysterical passage at the start of the Allegro was superbly driven and accurately executed. The moment of calm when the second subject is transformed into something almost nostalgic for a moment was judged perfectly, neither glossed over nor indulgent, rising to its tragic ending. The ominous Moderato was shaped ideally, with the thundering climax dramatic and fully weighted. The manic Scherzo danced and wailed, producing the desired effect of a party from hell, but it was with the Epilogue that the performance was sealed. The sustained pianissimo is extremely difficult to sustain and the eerie atmosphere can be illusive to achieve. Not so here. The tension was maintained throughout and the dynamics controlled with devastating negative force. A vision of a world blown apart, crushed and licking its wounds.

*****