This LSO concert fell into Simon Rattle’s capacious grab-bag “Roots and Origins” series, a theme loosely based around national styles, although Brahms’s Violin Concerto, as ever, sounded more Brahmsian than Hungarian, and any English or Spanish markers in Debussy’s Images are squeezed through a dominating French sensibility.
The last time I heard Leonidas Kavakos play the Brahms (Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus, October 2013) he was on electrifying, almost operatic form. Five years later, however, he was more self-contained and meditative. True, his opening gesture made its mark, but his observance of the non troppo element of Brahms’s Allegro resulted in a particularly spacious, reflective account. This gave Kavakos room for all the minutiae that he does so well – those slides and alterations of timbre, a spontaneous hesitation that opens out into some profoundly expressive rubato, and the elegance with which he delivers a lyrical line back into the orchestra. He is a remarkably complete performer, with an approach that expands on detail to embrace a persuasive overview.
Above all, there was a page-turning narrative thread connecting the first movement’s themes, moods and contrasts that made everything crystal-clear. As an accompanist, Rattle matched Kavakos’s nuance and pliancy superbly, with ‘his’ LSO on its usual responsive form, the dark tone perfect for Brahms’s brand of heroics. Kavakos and Rattle made the cadenza (Joachim’s) bear the load of the first movement, and you could only marvel at Kavakos’s expressive powers and finely-geared technique. Juliana Koch’s heartbreaking oboe solo set the tone for the Adagio, which Kavakos took further in his half-lit, ruminative commentary. The non troppo vivace add-on to the Allegro giocoso marking gave a strong sense of deliberation to the Finale, with plenty of air for the intricate balance of beat and accents to register, and Kavakos led the way with a trenchant and weighty sound, which contrasted with his spectral sul ponticello playing in his encore, the Finale of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.2.
Ever since I heard him conduct Jeux at a CBSO Prom, Rattle has never lost his touch in French music, and particularly in Debussy. Here he was conducting the three orchestral Images (with ‘Ibéria’, the longest of the three, placed last, Debussy places it second). These late portraits of England (‘Gigues’), Spain and France have never been as popular (or as frequently programmed) as the earlier Nocturnes or La mer – perhaps they are held back by the Northumbrian and French folksongs and there is a rather generic Spanish olé that permeates the outer sections of ‘Ibéria’. (Debussy visited Spain once, for a day; he spent more time in England.) Together they form a substantial score. Rattle released an amazing amount of finesse in terms of timbre and colour – the LSO was excellent in all the remote woodwind fanfares and ghostly trumpet figures, and there was a chamber-music immediacy of ensemble, precisely shaped but immensely fluid. Debussy’s orchestral genius and Rattle’s realisation of it produced some marvellous effects, not least in the seductive languor of the ‘Perfumes of the night’ section of Ibéria – you wonder if George Gershwin consciously recalled the mood in the opening of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto.
The First of George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies starts slow, gets fast, then gets vertiginous. The harps did a convincing imitation of a cimbalom, dances whiz by at hectic, virtually non-danceable speeds, and the LSO’s playing was stupendously virtuosic.