Does the timing mean that somebody at Buckingham Palace had been checking the Barbican’s classical music programme? Only a week after being awarded a knighthood in the New Year’s honours, here was Antonio Pappano stepping forward to conduct a concert entirely of English music. It only needed a couple of choruses of “Rule, Britannia!” to put a patriotic seal on the evening.
The programme started with a new showpiece. A few years ago Thomas Adès compiled a suite of dances from his 1995 opera Powder Her Face. The brilliant orchestral writing was always the most memorable aspect of the score and, let loose on their own, the dances take the floor with panache – the glitzy, tawdry world of high society, viewed through a distorting modernist prism. Pappano played them punchy and loud, laced with big-band force.
As the centrepiece of the evening, Walton’s Viola Concerto provided a welcome oasis of balm. Written at the end of the 1920s, its music is already imbued with the angst of the coming decade. Many viola-players use the concerto to explore the darkest colours of their instrument, but Antoine Tamestit remained cool and elegant throughout, trusting to its emotional ambivalence – a refreshing change.
Then the engine was revved up to maximum for Elgar’s Symphony No.1. Nobody can accuse Pappano of underplaying the drama when he leaves behind the opera-house pit to make music in the concert-hall. Even under Colin Davis the LSO does not sound more rudely super-confident than this, the strings full-blooded, the brass arriving like a division of tanks, the timpani firing off cannonballs. The first movement was so gung-ho that one staggered away as though having taken on the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Waterloo at the same time. Only the slow movement, played here as a frank outpouring of ardour, turned down the volume control a bit. Then it was back to slam, bang, wallop through to the end.
As a composer, Elgar preserved a judicious balance between his public face as a figure of the Edwardian establishment and the private soul of a man dogged by insecurity and melancholy. There was no hint of doubt in this performance and the symphony did not come away better for it.