The London Philharmonic finished its questioning of Prokofiev by scheduling his two most-popular (if not greatest) symphonies and engaged Janine Jansen as a charismatic soloist. She and Yannick Nézet-Séguin made a productive partnership, and he and the LPO made some good music together, nowhere more so than in the ‘Classical’ Symphony, Prokofiev’s tribute to Haydn. With consistently well-judged – moderate – tempos, Nézet-Séguin produced a first movement of poise and elegance, rhythmic mechanisms running like clockwork. With the Larghetto eloquently expressive, the brief ‘Gavotte’ standing to attention, and a finale of eager interplay and pert rhythms, natty strings and frisky woodwinds standing out, this was a performance to treasure.
The Fifth Symphony was less consistent as a reading, if maybe in-keeping with its strengths and weaknesses, this end-of-war tribute to indomitable human spirit if not without some warnings, bluffs and ambivalences – all lost on State officials, which showered the symphony in accolades following its composer-conducted Moscow premiere in 1945. Nézet-Séguin gave the work an epic feel, encouraging brass and percussion to tilt balances their way, but such primary colours and raw vividness, for all the ‘authentic’ Soviet-style edgy timbres, only emphasised emptiness and bombast – but maybe it should. After the conflagration that concluded the first movement, the scherzo was full of pizzazz and angularity, brief respite offered by plaintive woodwinds (superb throughout the concert) in the trio. As the movement hurtled to its conclusion, there was no doubting the collective virtuosity of the LPO, or Nézet-Séguin’s ability to inspire it – but that the music might be ‘about’ something seemed not to be a consideration.
The finale was also too hasty at times for the most-precise unanimity and articulation, its giocoso
elements glossed over, angularities taking precedence too early and pre-empting the machinery of the coda, which flew by with robotic efficiency: surely the point Prokofiev was making. It was the slow movement that left the biggest impression, the conductor’s spacious tempo making the most of the soulful contemplation, from intense heights to lugubrious depths, the climax reporting vehement protest.
Earlier the violin concerto found Janine Jansen sinewy of sound and exploitative of mood-swings. Such a frenetic approach brought variety to the first movement but made the finale hard-pressed, a little too gawky. Throughout she enjoyed a tactile accompaniment, detail lucidly revealed and pertinently placed. The central Andante, with Jansen’s pared-down tone and dynamics, was simply effective in its Cinderella-like exquisiteness, the composer ahead of his audience in knowing just what to deliver and how to do it.