Opening a concert programme with a completely new work brings certain dividends and risks. While it’s vital to encourage fresh talent, the impact of a premiere can soon vanish, especially when, as here, coming before invigorating performances of established repertoire.
Undoubtedly, Sophya Polevaya’s Spellbound Tableaux made an initial impact, but had its ten-minute timeframe (as prescribed by the 2017 LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme) not expanded to nearly twenty, this ingeniously crafted score might have left a deeper impression. Constructed around a series of cryptograms prompted by Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound and intended as a tableau of five scenes, it’s a colourful score brimming with ideas. Its collection of cool watery sounds, a rhapsodic violin (courtesy of Roman Simovic), melodic shards and echoes of Charles Ives do much to convey the mystery and suspense of Hitchcock’s thriller, but the sheer abundance of motifs tended to overshadow an undeniable technical assurance. François-Xavier Roth and the London Symphony Orchestra deployed their considerable talents to give Spellbound Tableaux a strikingly assured send off.
The bulk of the evening was taken up by two works of similar age (about one hundred years) yet emotionally and stylistically poles apart. Elgar’s Cello Concerto arrived in a flowing and well-defined performance from Alisa Weilerstein with the LSO as characterful collaborators. A forthright opening gesture gave way to a performance of considerable drama, expressivity and fluid tempos. With little skips of his feet, Roth encouraged a full orchestral palette, full-blown colours echoing the rich singing tone of Weilerstein’s cello. More unbuttoned vitality than gentle rumination, the opening movement yielded to startlingly nimble wit in the second, soloist and conductor responding with alacrity to Elgar’s puckish scintillation. The Adagio commanded attention with delicacy of phrasing and melting pianissimo, Weilerstein’s technique impressed even when whispered intimacies became indulgent. Exhilaration and nostalgia were fully underlined in an absorbing finale notable for its flexible direction and intense involvement. Weilerstein’s flawless intonation was heard once again in the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite in E-flat, BVW1010.
Bartók’s pantomime ballet caused a scandal at its first performance in Germany in 1926, and here its gruesome details were vividly captured by a batonless Roth. Utterly in command of a score no bigger than a paperback he produced an uncompromising Miraculous Mandarin that compelled from its brutally dark cityscape through to its feverish ‘chase’ music. The LSO clearly relished the portraiture of thuggery, murder and seduction with woodwind and brass bringing distinction to their characterful roles, strings eerie (Hitchcock all over again) and timpani and percussion adding further to its nightmarish tumult, relieved briefly by the warmth of the wordless chorus given out by an efficient London Symphony Chorus. In short, Roth drove this uncompromising score forward with a thrilling and theatrical precision.