Sir Mark Elder – London Symphony Orchestra

Thursday 5th February,
The Barbican Centre, London

A wide-ranging and thrilling program from the London Symphony Orchestra last night under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. By interval, I was convinced that mezzo-soprano Susan Graham’s performance was the night’s stand-out, only to be blown away again by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony again in the second half.

The concert opened with a new work by Patrick Brennan as part of the LSO’s Panufnik Composers Scheme. It’s fantastic to hear newly commissioned works by up-and-coming composers on main stage programs, and orchestra gave Brennan’s work every ounce of passion and commitment as much as the other works on the program. However, in this case I was a little underwhelmed by the finished product, despite excitement after reading the program note. Ballabile was interesting in part, but seemed to lack an overall structural direction and often felt like Brennan was merely getting excited about the wealth of microtonal possibilities available to an orchestral string section.

Susan Graham was mezzo-soprano soloist in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, and she gave a stunning, expressive performance. Despite the inherent difficulties stemming from this piece’s score calling for different voice types in each of the songs, Graham soared effortlessly above the orchestra, blending particularly smoothly with the strings. Au cimetière and L’île inconnue were particular treats, balancing warmth with daring inflections of colour.

Following the interval, the London Symphony Orchestra was let loose on the dramatic weight of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique‘ Symphony. Under Elder’s invigorating direction, the intensity of this music became a shimmering presence in the hall, as it seemed the orchestral players put every fibre into the music. Particularly striking were principal clarinetist Andrew Marriner’s daring playing in the adagio-allegro non troppo, as well as the frenzy of energy that grew from the third movement. I was clapping as hard as anyone! Though it’s a pity that the program note on the work itself wasn’t cross-checked with Tchaikovsky’s composer profile (the latter claiming he committed suicide, the former saying there is no evidence to support this), the Finale’s throbbing fate theme left all in awe.