Sunday night is fiesta night, or so it seemed at the Barbican, where the London Symphony took us on a whirlwind tour from Seville in Andalucia to the Asturias. There’s nothing especially Spanish about Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, although the opera is largely set in Spain, but the second half was stuffed with genuine local colour, courtesy of Manuel de Falla, and artificial colour, courtesy of that great orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov. Spurred on by Xian Zhang’s dynamic presence on the podium, the LSO gave some lively performances.

Xian Zhang © Nora Roitberg
Xian Zhang
© Nora Roitberg

By my calculations, only four of the concerts I reviewed last year commenced with an operatic overture: Ruslan and Lyudmila, Das Liebesverbot and Béatrice and Bénédict (twice). It’s a pity, because the right overture can set the tone for the evening ahead, whilst allowing orchestra – and audience – to settle. The overture to La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) is one of Verdi’s finest. Fate knocks at the door – the opera’s opening scene ends with the Marquis of Calatrava being accidentally killed when a pistol is flung to the floor and accidentally fires – and a succession of melodies from the opera pour out. Xian Zhang is Music Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi – known simply as La Verdi – and she had just the right touch here: fiery brass, a soulful clarinet solo (Chris Richards) and a whiff of greasepaint about the accelerandos. The perfect concert opener.

Odd man out on the bill – and the major disappointment of the evening – was Sergei Prokofiev. Valentina Lisitsa bludgeoned the Second Piano Concerto into submission in steely-fingered playing that was both bold and scrappy. She clearly enjoyed the demonic helter-skelter of the Scherzo and displayed muscular power in the Intermezzo – Prokofiev in grotesque vein – but it wasn’t a performance to savour.

The only disappointing aspect of the second half of the programme was that it was so short. Three dances from Falla’s ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) and Rimsky’s Capriccio espagnol barely make the half hour mark. However, it’s almost churlish to complain when Zhang drew playing of such brio from the LSO. Falla’s ballet is full of infectious rhythms, to which Zhang was supremely alert. She drew earthy string playing in the Seguidilla (Dance of the Neighbours) while the Miller’s Dance (a farruca) featured a gloriously raucous French horn (Timothy Jones) and a most demonstrative cor anglais (Christine Pendrill). The Jota, the ballet’s finale, found brass and percussion stamping out the rhythms, castanets employed enthusiastically.

Spain long held a fascination for Russian composers. Glinka, the father of Russian music, composed his own Jota – the Jota Aragonesa – which in turn inspired Rimsky-Korsakov to compose one of his best-loved works, the Capriccio espagnol. This dazzling showpiece isn’t performed that often (another mystery known only to orchestral planners) but it never fails to please. Roman Simovic played the gypsy violin episodes with panache – shades of Ravel’s Tzigane here – while the clarinet solo in the “Canto gitano” was coquettish in the extreme. Zhang took the second section’s variations very slowly, possibly contributing to some wobbly horn ensemble, but secured some wonderfully lush string playing. The final fandango was terrific, a tour de force awash with festive colour. As an orchestral postcard of Spain, it can't be bettered.