In this case of a 34-year-old American conductor making his debut with the LSO it seemed likely that James Gaffigan would use the occasion to try and impress orchestra and audience alike with an immediate demonstration of virtuoso podium brilliance. So often has La mer been grievously mistreated as an orchestral showpiece. To Gaffigan’s great credit we heard an acutely sensitive, refined and subtly nuanced performance. There was no doubting his control of the orchestra, particularly in the way he generally kept dynamic levels down to the point where Debussy’s unique instrumental timbres were allowed to make natural and maximum effect. The work’s strong but often reserved expression and sense of awe and mystery were beautifully conveyed, and this approach meant that when the big climaxes came they made a proper impact. It was a good idea to present the work as a whole, with only the shortest of breaks between the three movements.
It was quite charming to see Gaffigan’s modest platform demeanour after this performance and throughout the evening: he seemed more intent on applauding members of the LSO than in acknowledging applause himself. Modesty was not shown by Yuja Wang, who arrived on the platform in the shortest dress that can ever have been worn by a serious classical artist, with alarmingly dangerous-looking stiletto shoes. Fortunately this footwear didn’t seem to hamper the pianist’s pedalling. Here was a case of appearance being completely deceptive, since we were treated to a feast of virtuosity and imaginative artistry. Prokofiev’s long first movement, which can sometimes seem too long in the wrong hands, was played in wonderfully characterful fashion by Yuja, who showed a combination of poetry and beautiful tone in the more reflective passages, and astonishing power and dexterity in the virtuoso writing. She sailed through the brief scherzo with nonchalant brilliance, and her pungent account of the march-like third movement was succeeded by a finale that once more showed a combination of sensitivity and brilliance. Throughout, Gaffigan and the LSO were ideal, expert partners.
If the second part of the concert was less satisfactory this was not at all Gaffigan’s fault, since his direction of Ravel’s score was by turns eloquent and full of energy. But the First Suite is an unsatisfactory entity, whose music makes a limited impact away from the complete score, even with the presence of the violent ‘Danse guerrière’: in the Interlude the absence of the wordless chorus makes the music seem bare and inconsequential. No wonder that it is never performed without Suite No.2, which comprises the last third of the ballet and does of course work well on its own, even without the vocal contribution. But, it was a good concert, and Gaffigan could justifiably be well pleased with his LSO debut.