To see a conductor debut with an orchestra is an exciting affair, as the orchestra as well as audiences witness the birth of a musical affinity as never heard before. For the debut of Philippe Jordan with the London Symphony Orchestra, this excitement was augmented by a programme showcasing both Slavic fire and orchestral colour.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

The word "discreet" hardly fits descriptions of Mussorgsky’s personality and his music, especially when considering St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, the original 1867 composition of what would later become Night on Bare Mountain. Formulated and orchestrated by Mussorgsky himself, this original version portrays Mussorgsky’s spirits in undiluted rawness, unfettered from the commonly performed Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration and without the concluding serene of the Morning section. If Jordan breathed in the niceties of Paris and Vienna where he is based, there was little in the performance that implied this. The sinewy and rhythmically alert direction rarely felt forced, and if anything, the LSO’s elan and polish brandished a degree of frightful admiration in the work.

In contrast to Jordan, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider has performed frequently both as conductor and soloist at Barbican Hall. Tonight, he emerged as a successful soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2, Op.61. Like many of Szymanowski’s late works, the concerto is, despite the full orchestra it requires, a spare work of economy and directness. Where Polish folk tunes combine with learned musical forms, the intertwining of primitiveness and elegance presents something as viscerally immediate as it is evocative. Jordan proved an emphatic accompanist as the brutal aspects of the work were downplayed, to which Szeps-Znaider responded with a sure-handed performance, including a cadenza that was allowed more liberties. After jovial interactions with the audience, Szeps-Znaider maintained musical integrity with a no-nonsense encore of J.S. Bach’s D minor Sarabande.

In surmounting Tchaikovsky’s often performed Symphony no. 5 in E minor, Op.64, Jordan and the LSO struck the right chord. Bolstered by the immaculate timpanist John Chimes, Jordan’s ear for rhythmic vitality and reluctance for obvious tempo manipulation guaranteed a sure momentum in Tchaikovsky’s most overtly rhythmic symphony. It was a masterclass display of contrasts and narrative. The dramatic, lyrical, and sweet themes of the Andantino cantabile were characterfully delineated, then passed onto each other with confidence and allure. On the other hand, the Valse was not overplayed, creating a sense of occasion at the Finale. Similarly, the transition between the first two movements was so smooth as to seem continuous.

Being the principal conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker, parts of Jordan’s musical Weltanschauung portrays a Viennese Klang, meaning the unity, control, lyricism, and physicality of the strings. The concluding moments of the Finale of the Tchaikovsky welcomes these dimensions, and the LSO’s undivided strings, now a major force born of their momentum, drew visible enthusiasm on Jordan’s face. The triumph of the concluding march, justified and perhaps paralleling Jordan’s own victory at the podium, was a scene to remember. One hopes to reencounter these scenes again, with Jordan present, of course.