“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind.” That quotation from Scripture is what I think of at the start of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor. The whirl of notes that provides a freeway for the soloist’s first entry together with the cascading octaves that follow, “cloven tongues like as of fire”, are one of the most intoxicating openings of any concerto. Beatrice Rana, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk, did not disappoint either.

Dima Slobodeniouk
© Marco Borggreve

What impressed even more than the sense of exhilaration present in the outer movements, the interplay of feather-light textures, fingers merely brushing the keys, set against fiery roulades delivered with absolute precision, was the translucency she achieved in the Andante. This concerto is no display piece for a virtuoso and has no proper cadenza as such, but the middle movement rejoices in several passages of exquisitely tailored solo playing. Clarity of articulation and limpidity of tone from Rana, answered by waves of warmth from the lower strings, created moments of sheer magic. It was like watching fine bubbles rising endlessly from within a champagne flute. 

At the start of this concert the LPO showcased its forthcoming Composer-in-Residence, the Cuban-American Tania Léon, in a piece called Stride. This references the idea that something is moving forward, in this particular case the struggle to achieve greater equality of the sexes. As so often, no matter how high-minded the inspiration is and how laudable the sentiments are, everything depends on an effective realisation. There was much to admire in Léon’s use of a large orchestra, displaying sweeping melodic arcs from the strings, chortling woodwind, metallic glints from percussion, juddery double basses, and galloping effects on a side drum winding down to a morendo conclusion. Yet “the horns with the wa-wa plunger”, which in a programme note the composer describes as reminding her of a Louis Armstrong growl, hardly registered. Not all that much distinctive Latin American flavour either. Over its quarter of an hour the music swayed and glided, this way and that, but never quite gave the impression of moving in a recognisable and purposeful direction.

Italy provided the inspirational backdrop for both Mendelssohn in his First Piano Concerto and for Sibelius in his Second Symphony. Yet in this sterling performance by Slobodeniouk, with the LPO on impressive form, southern sunshine and warming textures with their suggestion of full-fat Romanticism were not the defining feature. It takes a special kind of conductor to make you aware of the immeasurable depths which inhabit this particular work. Slobodeniouk is not given to flashy, theatrical gestures. He knows what he wants and achieves it with commendable persuasive force. Already in the opening Allegretto the landscape was anything but inviting, with menacing touches from icy woodwind and lower strings, the packets of explosive energy from the brass expertly unpacked. This was irascible, volatile Sibelius. 

Equally striking was the way Slobodeniouk handled the long second movement. Who knew there could be so many colours of the night? Shadows were always there in the background, a hint of demons lurking behind each snow-flecked boulder amidst a bleak terrain, the LPO strings drawing on their rich tonal resources, the brass carrying plenty of bite, the trumpets in particular like diamond-cutters. Though the elements of a phantasmagorical meteorological storm which Slobodeniouk repeatedly conjured up gave this performance its distinctive qualities, the Finale edged it towards an emotionally satisfying conclusion, the softness of the hymn-like passage for strings and the carefully terraced dynamics freeing the listener from the grip of earlier terrors.