We really needed an orchestral aperitif, something to open the ears and stimulate the senses. In the context of this programme, Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture would have done nicely. As it was we started ‘cold’ with the fragile beginning to Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), his final music, written “to the memory of an angel”, Manon, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and architect Walter Gropius who died from polio aged 18. This performance, exactingly prepared, found Leonidas Kavakos in technically impeccable and musically patrician form if somewhat at one-remove from the emotion of the piece, which was more forthcoming from the LSO, Semyon Bychkov detailing and shaping with a keen ear, both tactful to the soloist and alive to the wealth of sonority, colour and expression that the orchestra is afforded. Kavakos had far more to say in his encore, a J. S. Bach ‘Sarabande’ (a chorale of his is quoted from in the Berg), spellbinding in its poise and with every ornament made meaningful.
Mahler 1 is a regular in LSO concerts and tours (with Valery Gergiev and with Michael Tilson Thomas in recent times). Bychkov took a pastoral and slow-burn approach, the opening stealing in with a gentle dawn haze, although the distant trumpets were far too close from the stage wings. Bychkov found joy and a springy step in the exposition (repeated), the movement Janus-like in reflecting the previous night’s darkness while anticipating the revels of the midday sun. The scherzo was less heavily accented than it can (should) be, suggesting Beethoven’s merrymaking peasants, while the trio was a beguiling web of timbres and expression.
And so to the macabre third-movement funeral march, given with deliberate tread, and a fine double bass solo from Colin Paris (Bychkov rightly resisting the whole section playing it, which some conductors have fallen prey to recently; indeed he was respectful of the score throughout – no spurious timpani note at the symphony’s very end, for example). This was a greyly shaded account, with knees-up Klezmer for contrast, and a wonderfully intimate middle section, the strings the epitome of inwardness and sensitivity. The tempestuous finale crashed in appropriately, the LSO cruising over the waves, and in the slower and reflective section the strings (once again) were sumptuous, solemn and rapt, burgeoning gloriously with a range of touch and dynamics. The Jaws of Hell were also in evidence, and come the eventual triumph, Bychkov and the LSO were striding forth majestically arm in arm.