An exploratory trumpet peeps over a wall. A bassoon hesitantly waddles into view. A cheeky clarinet offers a leering response. Within just a few bars at the start of Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony, an impish character emerges – part Petrushka, part Till Eulenspiegel; a clown, a prankster. Written as a graduation exercise in Maximilian Steinberg's composition class at the Petrograd Conservatory, it didn’t quite set the blueprint for Shostakovich’s later works, although humour – twisted into something more bitter – would become a recurrent thread in his compositional career.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Gianandrea Noseda is midway through a cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra (destined for LSO Live release) and this latest instalment featured the puckish First. Noseda’s many years as principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky have given him something of an insider guide to this repertoire, taut, hard-driven interpretations, often more brutal than those of his St Petersburg mentor, Valery Gergiev.

Noseda’s knees must take a fair pounding on the podium. Often bouncing on the balls of his feet, he is constantly on the move, sometimes airborne. He drew out the frenetic, sardonic nature of much of Shostakovich’s music, the first movement’s mock waltz and the comic capers of the Allegro, with its Keystone Cops piano interjections a reminder of the composer’s time accompanying silent films in cinemas. The LSO was on pungent form, tucking into Shostakovich’s youthful score with relish. Timothy Rundle’s oboe solo opening the slow movement was spacious, met by Rebecca Gilliver’s glowing cello response which recalls the sighing opening phrase of Tristan und Isolde (Shostakovich would quote Wagner again in his final symphony, the 15th). The finale, where the composer shows his inexperience by throwing in too many ideas for the argument to remain coherent, blustered in its coda, a hint of militaristic effects to come in his later symphonies.

Noseda has long been an advocate of Alfredo Casella’s music – especially his Mahlerian Second Symphony – which perhaps explains why he prefers his 1907 orchestration of Balakirev’s Islamey to the one made five years later by Sergei Lyapunov. Casella’s is completely unidiomatic – more glossy and Italianate than Lyapunov's, which echoes Balakirev's own compositional palette – although it garnered the composer's approval. The LSO percussion sprinkled the glitter liberally in a lively account to open the second half of the concert, although textures were often muddied.

Seong-Jin Cho, Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Seong-Jin Cho, Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The highlight of the evening came before the interval. Seong-Jin Cho’s triumph in the XVII International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015 catapulted him to international fame, which clearly explained the long queue of Koreans waiting patiently for returns in the Barbican foyer. Those who succeeded in getting a ticket for his LSO concert debut would not have been disappointed, because Cho delivered an assured account that balanced passion and poetry. His opening chords were deliberate (not spread), with a well-gradated crescendo from pp to ff before the turbulent strings passionately burst in. Noseda and the LSO offered lots of the firepower here, unafraid of bombast but never descending into anything mawkish or syrupy – no clotted string lines here.

Cho leans into the piano, his nose almost touching the keys in one upper register foray. His playing was sensitive, his phrasing eloquent but never sentimental. There is plenty of animation too, the close of the first movement resulting in a dramatic flop of his left arm. Cho doesn’t push the dynamics too hard, remembering that, for much of the time, Rachmaninov has the piano in an accompanying role. The LSO principals revelled in the spotlight, none more so than Andrew Marriner whose clean, focused clarinet tone impressed in the Adagio sostenuto opening to the second movement. Rachmaninov signs off his concerto with his punchy four-note flourish, but Cho wasn’t finished, offering a wonderfully poised reading of the Chant d'automne from The Seasons, left and right hand perfectly balanced in duet. A highly impressive debut which should ensure that his relationship with the LSO is more than a brief encounter.


****1