If his recent guest-appearances are anything to go by, Antonio Pappano is adept at getting the very best from the London Symphony Orchestra. Throughout this concert, Pappano presided over playing of great warmth and precision, particularly in a powerfully dramatic reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s sweeping Arabian storybook, Scheherazade.
In some ways, György Ligeti's early and totally uncharacteristic Concerto Românesc resembled a scaled down Scheherazade. Leader Roman Simovic wove a chirruping and chattering solo part into the four short movements, and the third one rose to stirringly lavish climaxes. This 1951 score is from a time when Ligeti's music still clearly bore the marks of his teacher, Zoltán Kodály, and of his predecessor, Béla Bartók. But scratch a little further and there's a hint of Shostakovich in pictorial mode, particularly in the subdued Andantino which opens the work, which seems informed by the same Jewish musical texture evident in the Shostakovich's slightly earlier Fourth String Quartet. Like Shostakovich, Ligeti suffered at the hands of the censors and his boisterous Concerto was promptly banned. Even though the sensitivity of those official ears is hard to believe now, there's something decidedly mischievous about the work's conclusion which suspends a twittering violin line above a wandering horn, intercut by jabbing chords from the orchestra. The rambunctious energy of the finale and the delicacy of the work's earlier passages were caught brilliantly by the LSO.
Scheherazade's exotic tales were equally vivid. Pappano brought the work's longer view into focus with ease, expertly pacing the music to produce maximum weight and momentum. The undulations of 'The Sea and Sinbad's Ship' rocked forcefully, with the LSO producing a remarkable body of sound. Although some quieter ensemble moments in the wind were not as unified as they might have been (though Pappano had an equal hand in their uncertainty), moments of climax were thrillingly exact, particularly in the 'Festival of Baghdad' section of the finale. Most enchanting of all was 'The Young Prince and Princess', its tender melody tenderly phrased by the strings, quieter moments eliciting wonderful solos from wind and brass. Roman Simovic once again featured, affable and seductive in his solo passages representing the storyteller of the title; this Scheherazade found the LSO playing at the peak of its powers.
Bruch's First Violin Concerto is an immoveable fixture in concert schedules, but Midori wasn't the soloist to make the case for its ubiquity. The LSO's wind section produced the darkest, most concentrated hue in the opening chords and Midori responded, initially, with a small but pure tone. But this gave way to an aggressive bullying of the music which she continued into the leaping melody of the third movement. In the first movement's calmer second theme her tight and ultra-fast vibrato negated warmth and in the Adagio her introspection led to her sound retreating further and further into the orchestral texture; the coda had a crystalline beauty to it, but ultimately Midori was consistently out-classed by the orchestra.