We all know the format: a Big Symphony which is the main attraction of the evening, a pleasant concerto, nothing too substantial, and a not-too-long contemporary piece to keep the performers interested. Last night’s LSO concert looked that way on paper – but that wasn’t at all how things panned out.

Simon Trpčeski © Simon Fowler
Simon Trpčeski
© Simon Fowler

The contemporary piece – Blossoming II by Toshio Hosokawa – was the evening’s opener and turned out to be the most powerful and emotional piece of the whole concert. Hosokawa starts with laying down a ground note which swells from the faintest of pianissimi and represents (Hosokawa tells us in the programme note) the surface of a pond. A slew of string effects follow – glissandi and trills brought an intense feeling to my ears the buzzing of insects on a summer’s evening (although I have no way of knowing whether or not that was Hosokawa’s intent) and the music grew into passages of very high energy indeed. The quality of the LSO’s string sound is well known and loved, but in case anyone had forgotten, this work provided a splendid showcase for it: richness, lustre and precision dynamics.

A total change of mood followed, with conductor Robin Ticciati joined by Simon Trpčeski for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. It’s a whimsical work showing Ravel at his most mercurial, abounding with slides, syncopations and a barrage of little orchestral tricks. After the intensity of the Hosokawa, here was a work to remind us that classical music can simply be great entertainment. It was blatantly clear that all the musicians were having a ball, most of all Trpčeski, who was grinning from ear to ear and whose whole body seemed infused with impish humour (having said which, one of the percussionists high up on the left may have been grinning even more broadly). Trpčeski’s playing was notable for its lightness of touch and precision of timing, most in evidence on some  of Ravel’s fiendish passages where a repeated staccato figure is played at the same time as a melody which may be sweeping up and down the keyboard. Ticciati was wonderfully attuned to both his orchestra and his soloist, and seemed to be enjoying things almost as much as  Trpčeski: he was certainly getting great balance and timbre from all parts of the orchestra. If I have one criticism, it’s that on a few occasions, the orchestra was  too powerful for such delicate piano playing.

At the end of the helter-skelter fairground music of the first movement, Trpčeski paused for what felt like a long time to compose himself before embarking on the second. When he did so, it was a passage of exquisite beauty, the balance perfectly weighted between melody and accompanying chords, the rubato leaving chords hanging gently in the air. With the LSO’s woodwinds on top form, this was a slow movement to savour.

The upbeat mood returned for the third movement, to be followed by two great encores: after Poulenc’s genial Hommage à Edith Piaf, the LSO’s leader Roman Simović joined Trpčeski for a barnstorming performance of the finale from Ravel’s Tzigane,with maximum velocity playing and maximum ham acting of the demonic fiddler.

This may well be one of the best half-concerts that I will see all year, but I was sorely disappointed by Ticciati’s rendering of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4. Dance music was more courtly than rustic and the playing was constantly pleasant, constantly pastoral, with far less strength of accenting than I’m used to and every rough edge smoothed out. The approach was certainly self-consistent and I can’t fault the instrumental playing, but this a symphony that makes far more sense to me when there’s more contrast, in which the sunnier passages are performed with more abandon, the scherzo is ironic and the darker parts carry a sense of underlying threat. In the first three movements of this performance, I kept finding my attention wandering.

The fourth movement ends in a song which was sung beautifully by Karen Cargill. The song is scored for soprano; Cargill is a mezzo and brought lovely warmth to the middle and lower parts of the range without appearing to have any trouble whatsoever at the top; she also projected true involvement with the text. It made for a fine end to a symphony which had disappointed – the more so because of the excellence of the first half of the programme.