Pappano’s dramatic flair was writ large in The Isle of the Dead, Rachmaninov’s musical interpretation of Arnold Böcklin’s painting. With its doom-laden trees, tomb and coffin-bearing boat, the image (which Rachmaninov only saw in a black and white reproduction) inspired the composer to use some of his darkest orchestral hues. Pappano and the LSO perfectly conjured up the brooding opening of slow oars lapping across the dark waters towards the yearning, desperate central section, and then to a sense of resigned inevitability.
Erich Korngold wrote his Violin Concerto in 1945 for Bronislaw Huberman, although it had its first performance from Jascha Heifetz. Drawing heavily on themes from Korngold’s numerous film scores of the 1930s, it is undeniably kitsch in parts, but endearingly honest and fiendishly difficult to play. Not that soloist Leonidas Kavakos appeared particularly vexed by its technical demands. Thoroughly in control, and clearly working in close partnership with Pappano, Kavakos was on top form, reaching deep into the music’s warm heart, while switching effortlessly between various tempi and tonal contrasts. The LSO proved equally responsive to Korngold’s disarmingly effective writing. With energy to spare, Kavakos gave an encore in the shape of the first movement of Eugène Ysaÿe’s fifth violin sonata.
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra abounds with instrumental solos, couplings and ensembles, so it was no surprise that Pappano and the LSO focused their energies and expertise on getting these right. But their performance also had touches of daring. The opening movement felt a little unsteady and halting rather than apprehensive, but the performers gained in confidence in the jerky, even flirty, ‘Game of Couples’ and the pained ‘Elegy’. The edgy ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’ was literally as bold as brass — with trumpets and trombones giving their very best. A racy ‘Finale’ romped home, but not before turning back to give full recognition to the previous movements’ motifs and then gathering strength for a thrilling coda.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk