There has to be a really good reason to perform the whole cycle of Beethoven symphonies in one season, as most of them are so regularly played. The reason for the London Symphony Orchestra's new cycle is expressed in two words: Bernard Haitink.
What's in a name? Well, very few conductors could have opened the series with the sweet sounds that Haitink drew from the LSO, already on the crest of a wave after their Shostakovich concerts with Valery Gergiev in October.
The first programme comprised of three of Beethoven's subtlest works, each of them proving that the image we have of his music as big, bold and loud is sometimes utterly untrue.
To begin, the second Leonore overture - written for the 1805 version of his opera Fidelio. The loose form of the piece creates a broad dramatic canvas, so that we hear themes from the opera almost as items in a story. The wind groups gave a creamy tinge to the music, with gentle gradations of sound in the evocation of Florestan's Act II aria; and the two off-stage trumpet calls - the biggest programmatic gesture of all - were played with a golden edge, ending with an elegant diminuendo.
Next up was the Violin Concerto, a more serene piece than the familiar piano concerti. Bravo to Nigel Thomas, the timpani player, for executing his part so subtly in the first movement - the drums sounded like gentle heartbeats, alert but not bombastic. Haitink set a strict tempo, to which the whole orchestra stuck with precision.
The soloist was the magnificent Frank Peter Zimmermann, who gave a far more impressive and refined performance than the highly lauded Maxim Vengerov did with the LSO last year. Zimmermann has a beautiful singing quality to his playing, but he does not rely solely on this. His interaction with the orchestra in the second movement was seemingly natural, duetting with the clarinet over a muted string accompaniment in a moment of exquisite clarity of texture.
His attack in the tricky arpeggio passages was impressive, and the cadenzas had both muscle and a full-toned ringing quality in the difficult high register. The comedy and surprise of the final movement also came through: every time one expects a big sound the violin leaps up and plays a cheeky high melody, and Zimmermann caught this characteristic brilliantly.
The Seventh Symphony closed the concert. One or two moments of the first movement lacked a little focus from the brass particularly, but the second movement's distinctive ominous march was very well done. The outbursts in the scherzo were stirring, and the final movement sent us out elated by the level of the composer's invention, here pushed to the maximum.
The concert was a promising start to a potentially great Beethoven cycle, which is deservedly being recorded on the orchestra's in-house CD label, LSO Live, for release next year.