Viola player Antoine Tamestit opened his ‘Artist Portrait’ series with the London Symphony Orchestra with Martinů’s beautiful, yet curiously underplayed, Rhapsody-Concerto. Perhaps hyphenated titles are discouraging (“make your mind up”). But here it was balanced ideally between rhapsodic lyricism and concertante sparring between orchestra and soloist. Advocacy as eloquent as this might rehabilitate the work itself.

Antoine Tamestit and the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

The soloist’s tone and phrasing, on a fine instrument, was alluring from the outset, with a rich singing quality in the first movement. This songful quality lit up the second movement’s Bohemian tune, followed by virtuoso flair in the brief but dazzling cadenza. The LSO strings have never sounded as warm and full as when opening the piece and in the many later tuttis. The molto tranquillo coda made a poignant envoi. Hans Keller wrote a mischievously provocative essay on “Phoney Professions”, listing both viola players (“it’s just a big violin”) and conductors among his targets. This performance refuted him as surely as it delighted everyone else.

It's tempting to claim the programme followed a neglected late masterpiece with an overplayed “look what I can do” 'prentice piece. But Shostakovich clearly deserved to graduate when he could write like this aged nineteen. His trademarks are already present, not least the stark juxtaposition of the quietly questing passages with outbursts of noisy exuberance. Sir Simon Rattle relished these transitions, so they startle even when you know the next flare-up is coming. He also had a splendid grip of very broad tempi, buttonholing the listener through a long stretch of the fine Lento, building the tension inexorably to its powerful climax. Amongst those Shostakovich trademarks are plentiful instrumental solos, and the conductor had Olivier Stankiewicz (oboe), Carmine Lauri (violin ) and Rebecca Gilliver (cello) take deserved bows. But he could have added Daniel Jemison (bassoon) and, of course in this work, Elizabeth Burley (piano), among others.

Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

But acknowledging the LSO’s many fine players would have extended the admirably short, no-interval running time. With two pieces running just under an hour, and with a 7 pm start, we could leave the hall saying “that was terrific, where shall we dine”? But Rattle favours generous programmes, so asked us “Shall we play some more?” Approval obtained, he observed “Dvořák always makes things feel better” and gave us the Slavonic Dance in A flat major (Op.46 no.3). An enchanting amuse-bouche, deliciously played, warmly recalled as we contemplated the menu at Moro in Exmouth Market (since you ask).

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