Just when you thought François-Xavier Roth must have exhausted his stock of surprises, along came another scales-from-the-eyes moment. Only this time he had an accomplice. Alisa Weilerstein recorded the Elgar Cello Concerto nine years ago with Daniel Barenboim in an account whose dramatic fervour recalled the approach taken by that conductor’s late wife, Jacqueline du Pré. Their Dresden version is a vital, energised reading that’s worth 30 minutes of anyone’s time. It is also – and here was the surprise – worlds away from the music the cellist made last week with Roth and the LSO.

François-Xavier Roth © Holger Talinski
François-Xavier Roth
© Holger Talinski

In a performance of ripe autumnal colours, the American soloist and French maestro seemed to overlay one ageing composer on another as the bearded shadow of Brahms suffused Elgar’s post-Edwardian score. The concerto’s opening figure, so often a punchy attack of clatter and nervous tension, has rarely sounded more legato and thus set the tone for an interpretation that never once tipped into over-excitement. It was mature in every sense of the word: mellow and cohesive, unsullied by fake histrionics or ersatz emotion. Yet the playing by both soloist and orchestra never sacrificed virtuosity on the altar of unity. The second movement’s Allegro molto had a worker bee’s élan, while the finale gave the concerto a rousing pay-off thanks to a late slide into romantic lushness. This was an Elgar concerto of all the colours.

If Elgar is a known quantity, full steam ahead and steady as she goes, Bartók is the opposite: a mutable force, constantly buffeted by the crosswinds of his inspiration. There was no need for any of Roth’s surprises in his account of The Miraculous Mandarin. The composer did that job for him. While it seems perverse that a folk dance specialist of the Hungarian’s ilk should have composed a 45-minute ballet score in which melody takes a back seat, in adapting the tale’s grotesque scenario (a woman fends off male assailants until a mystic Mandarin saves her; her rescuer then follows a preternatural path towards death) he clearly wanted orchestral energy alone to tell the story, with textural colours as the agent of propulsion. It’s as if too many tunes would hold up the ballet’s momentum. The Introduction could be straight out of The Rite of Spring, and only in the surreal final section does the score loosen its stays to accommodate a hallucinatory conclusion.

“Face your fears in order to conquer them,” implies the Mandarin; but the London Symphony Orchestra is a band without fear and Roth, conducting from a miniature edition of this complex work, had authoritative command of both the score and the orchestra. At once visceral and disciplined, he drew scintillating playing from each section, none more so than the woodwind and none of them more so than Chris Richards, the sinuously expressive principal clarinet.

The world premiere of Spellbound Tableaux by London-born Sophya Polevaya had opened proceedings. This young composer’s success in the LSO Panufnik Scheme (2017-2018) led to the creation of this engrossing 20-minute score in five short movements, a work that demonstrated a mature command of large orchestral forces. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound was Polevaya’s point of departure but it probably won’t be the listener’s, for this is not a narrative work. Rather, it began with slow, juddering figures and progressed through insistent dynamic shifts until, gradually, embryonic melodic shapes infused the sound world. Like ink spilt on untreated wood, chords bled from every fissure and seeped into the mood as they spread. It was nothing if not absorbing.

****1