London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London

Brilliance and balalaikas

Ask not for whom the bell tolls; the answer is Rachmaninov. His final work, Symphonic Dances - a last will and testament in so many respects - ends with a prolonged, doom-laden resonance of the tam-tam. Or does it? The score barely hints at such; the note value is only fractionally longer than the final chord, and the words "laissez vibrer" do not appear, as they do several bars earlier. But Vladimir Jurowski, the conductor of this splendid London Philharmonic concert, opted (as so many do nowadays) for the big theatrical effect. Which is what we might have expected from Glyndebourne Festival Opera's new music director and its house orchestra.

One of Jurowski's great strengths- and it's something that can by no means be taken for granted - is his keen sense of rhythm. Remember, these are dances, and Rachmaninov's extraordinarily resourceful orchestrations glitter and luxuriate in an atmosphere of deathly oppression - like precious gems strewn across killing fields. The first and last movements are relentlessly driven, pausing only fleetingly to look back once more with feeling, and regret. A terrible yearning, for Rachmaninov's lost homeland. In the first, music's jazziest practitioner, the saxophone, comes over all dewy-eyed in one of the composer's most poignant melodies. Jurowski treated it with a respect bordering on reverence, expansively but without recourse to showy rubato. The presence of piano in the orchestra, balanced to perfection, came over like a distant memory of Rachmaninov the travelling virtuoso.

The LPO's playing was exemplary throughout, sumptuous and pithy by turns. Collectively, they seemed to put some resonance back into the Festival Hall acoustic. The return of the second movement's valse triste - a ghostly remnant stealing back into the imperial ballroom of happier times - was properly breathtaking. As was the finale's headlong ride to the abyss, Rachmaninov's demons on his tail trailing the Dies Irae like a pennant, the LPO horns with their bells triumphantly raised.

The concert had begun with what you might have thought to be Wagner had you not consulted your programme. The suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's penultimate opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, begins with "forest murmurs" straight out of Wagner's Siegfried - rustling strings and dappled woodwind, flute and oboe distinguishing themselves - and proceeds to a battlefield that must surely have served as the model for Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. There is also a bridal procession with seven balalaikas - an expensive sound effect given that you only hear them because you can see them, in national costume, all dressed up and with nowhere to go.

It was a neat idea, following this with "something completely different", as they say, from Rimsky's star pupil, Igor Stravinsky, wilfully unlearning everything his master taught him. Leonidas Kavakos played the Violin Concerto with almost casual brilliance. Jurowski, too, made it all sound so easy, effortlessly pointing the chugging rhythms, misplaced accents, and dotty gear-changes. This is musical Cubism of Picassoesque ingenuity, with chuckling bassoons right at the outset giving notice of Igor's irreverent new take on old music. Kavakos tends to stoop over his instrument, a tall, lean figure who never takes his eyes off the fingerboard. We might almost not be there, though his playing tells us that he knows that we are. The technique is wonderful: those florid arabesques in Aria II sounded almost airbrushed in. To have an encore demanded after this piece is rare. Kavakos gave us a Paganini after- dinner mint.

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