There was a revolutionary theme running through this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert conducted by Markus Stenz, even if at times the barricades were closer to police cones and the gunfire was heard behind double-glazing. It was good to find an example of unpredictable programming which challenged listeners to reflect on the constant renewal of musical language, from the première of Beethoven’s First Symphony in 1800 to Thomas Larcher’s Violin Concerto first heard in 2009.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Marco Borggreve
Classical balance was very much in evidence in Beethoven’s C major symphony, not just with antiphonal violins hinting at all-important dialogues to follow but with both the cellos and double-basses split into two groups on either side of the platform. This was an elegant, well-turned performance, where string lines were not left to look after themselves but nicely pointed, and in which textures were sufficiently aerated to allow the underlying energy to be asserted without any aggressive edge. In the slow movement there was a particularly fine gradation of dynamics, and room was left for those early glimpses of what Beethoven was to do in his later symphonies when the sky clouds over and a glowering mien replaces a radiant smile. The minuet, which Beethoven was already stretching far beyond its 18th-century proportions, was suitably spirited, with all the colourful bunting of a summer’s celebration flapping joyously in the wind. There were no repeats but even so this was a substantial curtain-raiser.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja was the soloist in this performance of Larcher’s Violin Concerto, graced by the presence of the composer. The contrast to what had gone before in terms of orchestral forces could not have been greater: a kind of chamber orchestra with far fewer strings but with the addition of a single trombone and a vast array of percussion instruments including six kalimbas. These pared-down textures are intended to produce the rhythmic mobility which gives the piece its inherent energy. At the start, the solo violin enters, supported by pointillistic percussion and clarinet, and the gently rocking motion creates a sense of suspension more than a little reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabulation. These celestial sounds return at the close of the first movement, underlining its cyclical quality, and the solo violin then disappears into the far distance.

One revolutionary element in this 25-minute work is the fact that the second (and closing) movement offers little in the way of a contrast. It begins and ends in similar fashion to the first, although a passacaglia is an important structural feature. One is aware of the high level of craftsmanship which produces a wide range of ethereal effects for both the solo violin and the orchestra, neatly balanced throughout by Stenz, but the folk-inspired Romanian dance rhythms in the first movement and the occasional manic quality to the writing for the soloist in the second do not provide enough in the way of thematic contrasts. The journey was pleasant enough but I felt that by the time the glass carriage glided to a halt, it had done so without much territory being surveyed and indeed very much mileage being added to the experience.

Stravinsky’s mother was not exactly the most supportive of parents. She didn’t attend a performance of Le Sacre du printemps until 1938, a full quarter-century after it burst onto the scene, and was then heard to murmur: “I don’t think it will be my sort of music.” Who knows what she might have thought of the plush and heavily upholstered performance of this Rite. She might actually have wondered what the original fuss was all about. These days orchestras, and certainly those like the LPO which boast formidable ensemble qualities and first-rate soloists from within their ranks, can almost play this erstwhile enfant terrible of the repertory in their sleep. Stenz is a relatively undemonstrative conductor, giving full attention to matters of balance and precise cueing, and the absence of point-making was very welcome, but there is a real danger in making this most seminal of modern works sound too comfortable.

From a bright-sounding bassoon solo from Jonathan Davies we moved quietly into the almost velvety pizzicati from the first violins, and the stirrings of Mother Earth in the lower strings were still relatively untroubling. It can be argued that by holding back in the earlier sections Stenz made the savagery of the “Dance of the Earth” at the end of Part One especially cataclysmic. Nevertheless, the composer himself expressed his disdain for overly manicured performances and for all the beauty of sound the LPO displayed, with particularly fine playing from the trumpets, I missed the sense of foreboding, the unsettling quality which threatens the inner eliquilibrium, and yes, the sheer horror of a sacrificial victim being consumed before our very eyes. Nobody in the audience will have gone home fearing a nightmare.