It’s always dangerous going to hear a well-loved piece in concert; the weight of expectation is great indeed. And last night at the Barbican there were two on offer from the London Symphony Orchestra - a heady mix of excitement and nervous anticipation. This concert was also the LSO conducting debut of Rafael Payare, recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra and graduate of Venezuela’s El Sistema.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is known to anyone who was a child from 1940 onwards, when it featured in Disney’s Fantasia. But Mickey Mouse was nowhere to be seen in this performance, which revelled gleefully in the apprentice’s terror at being unable to control his spellbound broom. After a slightly shaky opening few bars, Payare brought out a taut performance, brimming with confidence and enjoyment. There was a whirling dervish feel to the multiplied uncontainable brooms, with a fantastic burst from the brass as the Sorcerer returned. Expectations very much met.

Rafael Payare © Luis Cobelo
Rafael Payare
© Luis Cobelo

The “difficult sandwich work” of the concert was Beethoven’s early Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat, where the orchestra were joined by Elisabeth Leonskaja. It was hard to understand what the rationale was for choosing this work, but this was not detrimental in itself, thanks to a lovely performance from Leonskaja, and symbiotic relationship between her and Payare. They barely looked at each other during the performance, but were perfectly attuned to one another throughout.

This work shows a young composer still in thrall to his great elders, Haydn and Mozart, with just the briefest glimpses of the future Beethoven. Payare and Leonskaja avoided the temptation to over-Romanticise, and the result was a clear, deft interpretation. The unexpected key changes in the opening Allegro con brio, hinting at the future Beethoven, were sensitive and nuanced, the only slight heaviness coming in the Bachian-style fugal cadenza for the soloist. It is an odd passage overall; there is a sense of the youthful Beethoven wishing to impress, showing that he can write music in that same masterful way. It is not long however, before his own exuberance gets the better of him, and yet more flashes of the composer-in-waiting appear as the cadenza and then movement draw to a close.

The Adagio was stately and measured, with a wonderful sense of calm. Leonskaja made light work of the movements rapid runs up and down the piano, and the orchestra brought out flickers of Fidelio throughout. It ended with a beautifully delicate call and answer between the piano and orchestra, before Leonskaja attacked the closing Rondo without pausing for breath. Her spilt octave runs were a little suspect here, but otherwise her fingers flew over the keys, matched by a dancing energy from the orchestra from start to finish.

Scheherazade is another work that needs minimal introduction. Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical depiction of the Arabian Nights is perhaps his best-known work, and evidences his utter mastery of orchestration. Payare’s approach appeared to be “go big or go home”. In another, larger concert space, it would have worked very successfully; in the Barbican, however, it was too much. Payare is clearly a great conductor, but he needed to take greater stock of the space he was in, and adapt his interpretation accordingly.

Viewing the performance as a competition between the different sections of the orchestra, the woodwinds won hands down, both in tutti sections and solo passages. The clarinet soloist in particular appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, and this showed in mellifluous playing, matched by his counterparts. The brass struggled in places; in the second movement the trumpets in particular didn’t quite manage the start of the fanfare. This movement was also the least successful, with some timing issues, most noticeably in the pizzicato strings. The overall sensation of the movement was one of bludgeoning, with the lack of subtlety in interpretation bearing exhausting results.

 The strings were also the least successful section in the performance. In the tutti section, it felt as if there were simply too many of them, while the solos sounded thin. This thinness of sound worked well in the final movement as a demonstration of the Scheherazade’s strain, but elsewhere it felt hollow. There were some lovely moments, such as the solo woodwinds in the first and third movements, and the gorgeous lilting quality of the dance sections in the final movement. This was contrasted by some fabulously grotesque moments, as the orchestra chopped and changed themes. Whether this was intentional or not is unclear, but it was very satisfying. However, the ultimate sense at the end of the performance was one of disappointment, a longing for a little more shade to Payare’s interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece. He is certainly capable of it.