“Damrau sings Strauss” proclaimed the banners around the Barbican Centre. For the final concert of her Strauss residency, the German diva had prepared an ambitious programme of a world premiere song cycle with her frequent collaborator Iain Bell, paired with Countess Madeleine’s extended final monologue from Capriccio. What to do, then, when the soloist falls ill an hour before the concert? Fortunately, a little bit of creative reorganisation from conductor Gianandrea Noseda and a last-minute solo turn from leader Roman Simović resulted in a wholly satisfying evening.

Roman Simović, Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Rather than ending the concert as originally intended, Noseda and the LSO opened the evening by excerpting the “Mondscheinmusik” from Capriccio. One of Strauss’ most radiant compositions, it represents his orchestral writing at its utmost maturity. Nevertheless, his favourite orchestral touches are all still there, especially in the opening horn solo which was performed with serene smoothness by principal horn Diego Incertis. Noseda adopted a restrained tempo and exacting control over dynamics, with hushed string arpeggios. As a result, the rapturous climaxes were all the more effective in contrast, with luxuriant sound washing throughout the hall.

Strauss referred to Capriccio as a “conversation piece for music”, and violinist Roman Simović’s last-minute performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto proved the best possible demonstration of musical dialogue. One would never have guessed that he was called upon to perform a mere 25 minutes before the concert with no rehearsal; Simovic’s extended tenure as leader of the LSO meant that he and the players are intimately familiar with one another’s playing style, and the nearly airtight ensemble playing was remarkable. The first movement was elegant and poised rather than overtly virtuosic, with a silvery clean sound which nevertheless projects easily even in the full orchestral passages. Simović was clearly having fun, making frequent eye contact with his colleagues and seemingly daring them to play faster or softer as needed. The second movement, with its extended dialogue between soloist and woodwind section, was truly chamber-like in its intimacy, with gorgeous fluidity in tempo that allowed the various solo lines to intertwine. Best of all was the third movement, taken at possibly the fastest tempo I’ve encountered. Nevertheless, this was no empty showmanship – each repetition of the main theme was given a different colour each time, and Simović’s brilliant articulation, almost spitting out the fiendish passagework, had the audience on their feet.

The second half of the concert brought two of Strauss’ great early tone poems, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. Although similarly vivid in their narrative and orchestral colour, their topics could not be more dissimilar. Don Juan blazes with heat and machismo, with its chaotically exuberant opening. Noseda’s reading of the work seemed more Capriccio than Don Juan, full of dexterity and finesse but missing the excess of the work. The LSO was on technically immaculate form, with wonderfully transparent passagework and a brief repose in the form of the central oboe solo with seemingly no breath being taken. Noseda’s approach was far better suited to the episodic revelries of Till Eulenspiegel, where his exacting control worked wonders. Bookended by satiny strings introducing the fairy tale of Till and his pranks, Noseda and his orchestra took the audience on a dazzling journey from the market to the church to the academics with finesse and humour. The funeral march and execution were played appropriately graphically, with a wonderfully grotesque E flat clarinet solo as Till plummets to his death. The brief return of Till’s theme at the end brought the appropriate touch of levity to a highly satisfying concert despite all the backstage drama – the show must go on, indeed!

The above review was amended to correct the name of the LSO Principal Horn.