In Nikolaj Znaider’s return to the London Symphony Orchestra, there was a palpable sense of ending. The first half to the evening’s programme, consisting of Mozart’s Second and Third Violin Concertos, marked the conclusion of Znaider’s live recording cycle, while Tchaikovsky’s last completed symphony, the “Pathétique”, aptly followed.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

In fulfilling his dual role as a conductor and soloist, Znaider’s amicable and free-roaming gestures facing the LSO, whose string players were standing up, epitomized the congenial intimacy conceived of Mozart's concertos. For the chamber sized ensemble, there was little pretension of attempting for an historically informed performance (HIP) interpretation. Even without vibrato-free and springy strings and clear of adventurous tempos, there abounded a sense of spry fondness if not informal ease. Yet were things marginally too informal? On more than a few occasions, the intonations of Znaider’s playing lacked precision, and there was a certain unease in the trills that garnish the youthfulness of these concertos. The chamber sized orchestra, too, was slightly undernourished in its classical charm, as the edges were often more rough than not, and the woodwinds surprisingly subdued.

Tchaikovsky’s veneration towards Mozart is no held secret, as the romantic era composer – born almost a century after the birth of Mozart – is known to have thought of the Austrian as "the ideal musician and artist in all aspects". And if the valedictory Pathétique Symphony documents emotional extremes that Mozart’s youthful violin concertos are seemingly blind to, the sense of melodiousness and orchestral clarity are unmistakable traits shared among these works.

Znaider did not overwhelm the audience with the impassioned development section of the first movement. With prolonged pauses and sinewy brass, austerity was painted in the Allegro non troppo. Yet things were far from one-dimensional; the velvety virtuoso of the LSO’s strings and a delectable troop of woodwinds (Andrew Marriner’s clarinet in particular) came to the fore when necessary, adding depth to the colourful orchestration. The Allegro con grazia, which can often be felt as a transitional movement, was memorable in its flowing tempo and dynamic sensitivity. The mellifluous warmth evoked was as poignant as it was beautiful. The Allegro molto vivace, as if to acknowledge the foreboding lament of the Adagio, did not feel triumphant given its judicious playing – the lack of applause from the audiences was telling.

It was in the Adagio lamentoso that Znaider appeared to emancipate the latent emotions that had been contained in the previous three movements. Elegiac, dynamically well-crafted and imbued with doses of silence, the climaxes were wrought with cathartic release, and the double-bass ostinatos of the concluding bars were entirely justified, a logical conclusion to an echt-symphonic narrative.

Still, even in the most dangerous of moments, the LSO forces rarely let go of their lyrical instincts. Although this provides a tinge of humanity, I missed the cold beauty and abandon the piece can contain. Of a work that often leaves me weak at the knees, I instead found myself exchanging nods with a nearby colleague, with a grin on my face.