Classical: LSO/Metzmacher, Barbican, London

Metzmacher's baptism by fire
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The Independent Culture

Amid the Christmas lights and trimmings, thank God for the LSO interposing a concert of "real" music – and not just a single concert but two performances of two of the repertoire's more tricky pieces. This was the young German conductor Ingo Metzmacher's debut with the LSO, and something of a baptism by fire. Metzmacher's origins – German and sometime-instrumentalist with the crack new music group Ensemble Modern – were plain to be seen in the choice of repertoire: Beethoven and Stravinsky prefaced by Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

Beethoven's Triple Concerto is one of the most difficult pieces to pull off. The combination of a piano trio as soloists with orchestra screams problems of balance and ensemble. This is a work where the weakest carrying instrument, the cello, has the most to do, so where and how should the three soloists sit in relation to each other, the audience, the orchestra and the conductor? Steven Isserlis chose to sit at an angle to the audience, playing across the hall, while Leonidas Kavakos, a late substitute for the violinist Pamela Frank, stood at Isserlis's right shoulder, playing to him rather than the audience. Pianist Stephen Hough, on a very modern concert grand, craned his neck to see his colleagues, while Metzmacher had his back to them all.

Given these strained circumstances, ensemble between soloists and orchestra was, on the whole, pretty good. More problematic was the cohesion of the three soloists. Isserlis, in true chamber style, immediately joined in the orchestral tuttis, reducing the feeling of "them and us", to emerge a soaring phoenix in full plumage. Isserlis now plays the Stradivarius once used by Emanuel Feuermann, who was arguably the greatest player in the highest registers of the cello. With a wry smile, Isserlis went for Beethoven's treacherous writing, smoothly negotiating the perilous heights with limpid tone, always sensitive to every nuance of phrasing. Isserlis's musicianship dominated the three, Kavakos showing little sensitivity to the music's chamber demands, while Hough was saddled with an instrument too loud to fully integrate.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is hardly debut material, but Metzmacher triumphed. This is something of a party piece for the LSO but Metzmacher meticulously controlled his seething forces. In the Barbican's newly clarified acoustic, I cannot remember such seismic playing, the score boiling with rawness and savagery from blazing brass and tumultuous percussion.

These two works should have been enough. Hartmann's Sym-phonie Concertante – Symphony No 5 began the concert, and in its unusual scoring – wind, brass, cellos and basses – and as a homage to The Rite (it nicks Stravinsky's melodic material and harmonic colours with no clue how to use them) was mildly interesting. But not in the company of giants.