The final, catastrophic moments of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 6 were hurled at the Barbican walls in Tuesday night's concert with a sense of manic triumph, albeit one expressed in a luridly-scored E flat major chord. Thomas Søndergård, standing in for Valery Gergiev, was on inspired form with the London Symphony Orchestra, and portrayed the tension between private melancholy and Soviet authority with devastating impact. The LSO’s natural affinity for Prokofiev’s style and Søndergård’s keen sense of musical architecture was displayed to great effect, particularly in the soaring melodies of the slow, central movement.

Barry Douglas © Katya Kraynova
Barry Douglas
© Katya Kraynova

The musical landscape in this symphony draws its power from an intensifying battle between Soviet-like marching rhythms and an inner realm of suffering, brought out most successfully in the first movement. After the sting of the opening brass notes subsided, Søndergård coaxed out the limpid beauty of the two principal themes on muted violins and oboes with a deft touch. The incessant ticking rhythms and eruption of violence in the central section were performed with laser-like clarity from the LSO wind and brass sections, and the unusual effect of pulsating horns that follows the shattering climax was presented with an appropriate restraint, reflecting Prokofiev's own description of “asthmatic wheezing”.

Although the dramatic sweep and forward momentum of the LSO's performance created a satisfying cohesiveness in the central movement, there were moments where Søndergård could have turned down the emotional temperature, particularly in allowing the unusual harmonic contours of the nocturnal horn quartet to linger in the atmosphere a fraction longer. Nevertheless, the final minutes of this movement proved totally convincing in banishing the earlier, steely sonorities as the music wound down to a comforting conclusion. This repose was broken immediately by Søndergård's attacca into the final Vivace movement. Orchestra and conductor propelled the music forward with a sense of demented exuberance, highlighted by cutting rejoinders from the double basses and tuba. The brief re-appearance of the first movement oboe theme sounded even more tender and wistful in this oppressive atmosphere of enforced jollity. In summary, Søndergård's more streamlined approach to this symphony produced a wonderfully engaging performance.

Barry Douglas provided a compelling antidote to Prokofiev's private world of anguish in his fine traversal of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. In a refreshing performance, Douglas fully engaged with the extrovert character of the first movement and succeeded in balancing a powerful tone with an intuitive sense of line. A particularly lithe touch was applied in the first brief cadenza and the tripping, folk-inspired Allegro theme flowed along effortlessly. If the orchestral opening lacked the last ounce of grandeur and Schwung, this was partly due to Søndergård's desire to keep some of the LSO's power in reserve. Further displays of virtuosity in the many flying octave passages were shrugged off by Douglas' powerful grip of the solo part. The extended cadenza before the coda was especially beguiling, and the soloist offered us some beautiful moments of reflection and poise amidst the swirling torrent of notes.

Adam Walker's flute solo at the opening of the slow movement displayed an exquisite stillness and purity to which Douglas responded in a similar fashion, presenting the main theme with a quiet assurance. The virtuosic demands of the central Prestissimo section were inaudible in Douglas' hands and his fluid traversal of the scurrying semiquaver figures faded into the background in order to allow the lower strings' melodic material to shine through. Both pianist and conductor presented the Allegro con fuoco third movement with a keen feel for dance rhythms and requisite power was kept in reserve for the final tutti presentation of the second theme and the exhilarating coda.

Søndergård's tight control over the LSO's powerful playing style resulted in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet that stressed symphonic logic above fantasy. This was especially convincing in the Allegro giusto section, where conductor and players screwed up the tension in a manner that felt inevitable rather than merely melodramatic. The extended love theme on violas and cor anglais was beautifully shaped, but the following nocturnal murmurings in the strings felt too present, arguably needing a more half-lit, distant sound to truly convince. Despite the assured performance from the LSO, an imaginative feeling for the drama was only partially present in this account of the overture. Nevertheless, the sense of symphonic cohesiveness that Douglas and Søndergård brought to the concerto and symphony proved for a thrilling and engaging concert overall.