CLASSICAL MUSIC: LSO/ Pappano; Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
A sense of expectancy filled the air at Thursday night's LSO Barbican concert as London-born Antonio Pappano, the current Music Director of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and a main player on EMI's current roster of young conductors, prepared to set Smetana's quick-fire Bartered Bride Overture in motion. Pappano's manner is hugely energetic; he bounces, prances, waves a vigorous beat, stoops to the violas or cellos and implores the violins with an implied con amore.

The Smetana bounded in at a tremendous lick: each fugal entry darted forth with knife-edged incisiveness (the cellos, in particular, exhibited lightning reflexes) and the tender second theme was lyrically phrased. Pappano held the quiet, scurrying coda on a tight leash so that when the final climax arrived, the effect was doubly electrifying.

It was an auspicious opening, although the work that followed - Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A minor - was orchestrally less distinctive. Here, Pappano's soloist was the phenomenally gifted Maxim Vengerov, an immaculate player whose smooth, vibrant tone and superb technique made for some wonderful fiddling. The concerto itself is a likeable patchwork of catchy tunes and infectious rhythms, less well-built than the great Cello Concerto, but frequently appealing - especially when its performers deliver the goods. Vengerov's forcefulness paid off in the finale (his steely spiccacto and lustrous double-stopping left one open-mouthed with admiration); it was an agile, virtuoso tour de force, but I would have welcomed a less relentlessly intense approach to the first movement. The Adagio, however, was glorious - sweet, pure, utterly seamless and with discreet support from the LSO strings - though Pappano's dutiful conducting made very little of Dvorak's felicitous woodwind writing.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth was another matter. There, theatrical gesturing and visceral excitement ruled the day. The opening Andante had real shape and body, whereas the Allegro that follows heaved, accelerated and sung, with soaring strings, stentorian brass and a growling diminuendo leading towards the Andante slow movement. Pappano's main interpretative priority was a surging string line, though the first movement's hammering climaxes raged loud and hard. The two middle movements were less impressive, the Valse especially, where stiff-jointed phrasing spoilt what should have been stylish rubato. Also, the filigree middle section witnessed some imperfect balancing between strings and woodwinds.

In the Andante cantabile slow movement, Pappano took Tchaikovsky's "co alcuna licenza" at face value but, again, his interpretative ideas were imperfectly realised, especially in terms of tempo and timing.

The finale's opening Andante maestoso shifted pace with alarming frequency, but once into the Allegro vivo, Pappano turned on the heat and the orchestra responded with a performance that was vigorous, impassioned and triumphant.

It was the sort of interpretation that, given time, could well blossom into something truly memorable; but Thursday's performance suggested that there is still work to be done. Still, better a heartfelt statement with rough edges than plenty of style with no heart - a rather familiar alternative, especially these days. Robert Cowan

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