The first half of this Barbican concert made the most of an unlikely link between the music of Sibelius and Bernstein in works that receive irregular outings in the concert hall. The first of these, Sibelius' The Oceanides (an American commission taking inspiration from Greek mythology) was a taut affair, with Antonio Pappano steering the LSO on a clear course through the often delicate waters of a score conceived for a large orchestra that includes triple woodwind, pairs of harps and two timpani. One might have wished that the subterranean nymphs evoked by the opening string and timpani textures could have been more mysterious or that the first entry of the two flutes could have emerged as if by stealth, but overall this was a gripping account, rich in detail and possessing an inner strength. Rather than underline the work’s impressionistic features, Pappano went for symphonic growth, harnessing the material into a masterly organic conception that found release in a stupendous blaze of D major.
Next up was the first of three Barbican appearances of Janine Jansen, performing here Bernstein’s Serenade of 1954, a work also drawn from Greek mythology. Essentially a violin concerto, it is based on Plato’s Symposium – a dialogue on the nature of love – and scored for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion, with the soloist assuming the rhetorical role of the “speaker” in each of the five movements. Despite the recording advocacy by the likes of Bell, Mutter, Perlmann and Isaac Stern (for whom it was written), the work has never quite attracted the same degree of attention as other American concertos.
Jansen combined grace and virtuosity, allowing the opening paragraph in praise of Eros (the Greek God of love) to unfold with a sweetness of tone that ravished the ear. Rapture continued in two slow movements where her delicacy and clarity were exquisite and a perfect match for Bernstein’s luminous sonorities. Elsewhere, string playing (and some agile percussion work) in the quicksilver Presto was magnificent. An intimate and compelling duet between solo violin and cello (recalling the austere beauty of Shostakovich) made for an atmospheric prelude to the scintillating rhythms of the finale’s closing pages. With Pappano and Jansen driving this wild bacchanalia, here was sensuous music-making of the highest order, almost raised to the level of an aphrodisiac.
After the interval, Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony “The Inextinguishable” erupted with a ferocity that was as startling as it was passionate. One sensed Pappano seemed eager to confront the work’s belligerence, its instrumental collisions and, as the first movement expands, its bewildering riot of styles. To this he brought firm control, and some finely-honed string playing, especially notable in one quietly exposed chromatic passage. Momentum was never in short supply and towards the end its climax was magisterial.
Nielsen’s vision of a village band, complete with chattering woodwind, was nicely drawn in the Poco Allegretto with stylish, well-balanced playing. With the arrival of the tensile string theme that initiates the slow movement Pappano was able to illuminate a glowing quintet of solo strings and perfectly blended brass chorales - both high points in this eventful movement. The long–awaited entry of two spatially-separated timpani brought forth an explosive salvo that rocked the Barbican. Right through the turmoil of the finale the LSO were on peak form, their life force electrifying Nielsen’s expression of an “elemental will of life”.
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