Since the very welcome announcement that François-Xavier Roth will become Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra later this year, this Barbican concert was loaded with anticipation. With revelatory performances of Debussy and Mahler, given on Thursday, Roth looks set to be part of an exciting time for an orchestra that will soon also have Sir Simon Rattle as its new Musical Director.

François-Xavier Roth © Marco Borggreve
François-Xavier Roth
© Marco Borggreve

Roth conjured some fine, atmospheric playing from the LSO in Debussy’s Jeux – a ballet score from 1913 that still sounds startlingly new over a century later. Its illusive harmonic language, motific writing and ever-shifting sonorities create an amorphous soundscape, but under Roth’s batonless direction there was cohesion, clarity and colour. From within this lavishly scored work strings shimmered, woodwinds sparkled and a brief trumpet fanfare emerged from its chamber-like textures. Balance too was finely judged in a complex score that some consider a master-class in orchestration.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 is the most approachable of his piano concertos and the last work he completed in America. It is a far cry from his earlier, more combative piano concertos in which the piano virtually becomes a member of the percussion section. Here, the opening Allegretto was a somewhat relaxed affair, its tempo on the cautious side with a resulting understated playfulness. But Simon Trpčeski’s clean delivery ensured a degree of mischief and was communicated with ease to the other players. The Adagio religioso was beautifully transparent; unaffected simplicity from Trpčeski in his chorale-like passages and warmth of expression from the LSO with delightful woodwind chirrupings in the central panel. Hushed intensity in the outer sections made the contrast into the Finale all the more invigorating. This hurtled along and banished memories of the polite tempo of the opening movement. Virtuosity and sensitivity from soloist and orchestra were in total accord, making this account a joy to hear. Returning to the platform, Trpčeski offered a rendition of Dancing Fantasy (Damir Imeri's arrangement of by Koco Petrevski) played in its duet version with LSO leader Carmine Lauri.

The second half of the evening was occupied by Mahler’s First Symphony; its extended first movement interrupted by coughing from an audience insensitive to the mysterious calm of its Spring awakening. Off-stage trumpets were ear catching, as were numerous woodwind contributions and if, at times, this movement seemed too “earth bound” (it is marked Slow and dragging) the climax near the end was pulse-raising. For the second movement Roth brought out the music’s swagger and imparted plenty of “swirling beer and Lederhosen”. Innocence and earthiness were nicely contrasted, with well-marked dynamics.

The funeral march third movement got off to a beguiling start, with its famous double bass solo on Frère Jacques given out with haunting perception by Gunars Upatnieks. Thereafter, Roth coaxed refined and vivid playing to illuminate Mahler’s sardonic, almost schizophrenic creation. His keen ear enabled cymbal, gong and timpani their own moments of colouration. And so to the finale which brought out Mahler’s hysteria and tenderness in equal measure. But it was the triumphant coda– with the entire horn standing standing – that left the most thrilling impression. Roth and the LSO were on superlative form.