It can't be easy stepping into someone else's programme, especially when that someone is Pierre Boulez. The French composer and conductor had assembled a concert of music by some of his favoured creators: Béla Bartók and – a recent addition to the Boulez canon – Karol Szymanowski. Alas, health problems had ruled him out; fellow-composer-conductor Peter Eötvös filled the void.
The concert began with an unsettled trip through Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (1936). Eötvös's hand was steady at the tiller: clear in direction but unvaried in tempo. There was certainly the sumptuous sound of the LSO to enjoy, but no-one seemed entirely committed to this gloriously creepy haunted-house of a piece. Certainly, there were some strong moments, such as the second movement's frenzied coda, handled with crazed abandon. Eötvös's evenness often evoked ritualistic determination, but there's much more malevolence in the music than uncovered here.
Szymanowski's radiant Third Symphony (1914-16) could also have ebbed and flowed more, but its relative rarity in the concert-hall pardoned those concerns. In fact, this outing was something of a preview of the LSO's Szymanowski cycle, scheduled for next season with Valery Gergiev): a glut of music from the Polish composer that might convince a few more listeners of his greatness. ‘The Song of the Night’ revels in the heady mysticism of Jalal'ad-Din Rumi’s thirteenth-century text (rendered into Polish by Tadeusz Miciński with an awful lot of exclamation marks!) and reaching glowing choir-capped climaxes that sound like an eastern Daphnis et Chloé. The London Symphony Chorus provided the power to make the music ring as it should, even if the Barbican Hall's dry acoustic seemed like the wrong space for it. Gordan Nikolitch wasn't particularly persuasive in the many violin solos, but tenor Steve Davislim projected his part well and the LSO’s playing was glorious.
The real highlight, though, was Nikolaj Znaider's intensely felt reading of Bartók's labyrinthine Second Violin Concerto. So often, it feels like a work designed to confuse and confound; Znaider's brilliance was to avoid the sense of games being played and instead mine a rich seam of expression that lies hidden within its pages. His expansive sound and old-fashioned warmth made him an endearing guide through the music's complexities, but his playing also had tremendous urgency and purpose. This can be a difficult piece to like; Znaider was a man infectiously in love with it.