Two of the key players for tonight’s concert made their debut with the London Symphony Orchestra: Tugan Sokhiev and violinist Baiba Skride (who stepped in for an indisposed Midori). But neither these musicians nor the orchestra played it safe this evening. The programme contained Messiaen’s stunning Les offrandes oubliées, Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 and Tchaikovksy’s Fourth Symphony, allowing the musicians to display their strengths.

Tugan Sokhiev © Patrice Nin
Tugan Sokhiev
© Patrice Nin

Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées is a short yet impressively diverse piece of music. Inspired by Christ’s sacrifice, the three movements, “The Cross”, “Sin” and “The Eucharist” offer a deeply emotive narrative. The first and third are slow, meditative pieces that emphasize the strings in the orchestra. The second movement is vastly different, with its high intensity, and a starring role for the percussion and brass. The LSO offered a deeply involved reading, with precision and heart. These concepts exemplified their performance this evening as whole, although the three pieces were performed very differently.

Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 is incredibly demanding, but Skride handled all its challenges with verve and skill. The warmth of her playing in the lower registers was especially profound, which allowed her to make a powerful musical entrance in the opening movement. She was mesmerizing, with beautiful vibrato and somehow evincing both clean and coarse textures. From the start I was so enraptured by her performance that the orchestra faded into the background.

This continued through the first movement and was only amplified in the second, where the opening notes were of a rare beauty. It would be a disservice to the LSO to not also focus on their strong performance, as they allowed Skride to shine whilst tackling Bartók’s difficult score with ease. In the third movement the orchestra and soloist come together more closely, and even though the orchestra moved to the foreground a bit more, it was still Skride that arose out of the performance, shining bright.  

As reviewers we have the difficult job of both describing performances in somewhat descriptive terms, and attaching an evaluation to the performance. There are some performances, such as tonight’s, where this can create difficulties, however. If I were to describe the performance of Tchaikovksy’s Fourth Symphony is neutral terms, the reader would get absolutely no sense of what an extraordinary experience it was. The LSO and Sokhiev demonstrated why the best performances are not necessarily the most faultless ones, but that there are other elements that truly allow the performance to make a great impact.

Yes, the brass section of the London Symphony Orchestra, usually faultless, played some dodgy notes. Yes, the orchestra as a whole seemed rough around the edges, perhaps even under-rehearsed. Tugan Sokhiev worked harder on stage than most conductors, adjusting different sections on their dynamics more than once. But I have never heard a performance of this symphony as vibrant, urgent and compelling as this one. Sokhiev’s interpretation of the symphony contained dramatic crescendos and varied tempi, particularly in the first and third movements.

The woodwind section once again showed their worth, and the solos from bassoonist Rachel Gough and oboe player Olivier Stankiewicz (usually playing in Sokhiev’s own Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse) transmitted their melodies with clarity and beauty. The fourth movement, always somewhat of a musical hyperbole, was played the most straight-forwardly, sending us all off into the evening with hearts still racing.