LPO/Vanska, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Mozart, Saint-Saëns and Sibelius made an unlikely sequence, with Osmo Vanska's name written all over it.

Mozart, Saint-Saëns and Sibelius made an unlikely sequence, with Osmo Vanska's name written all over it. All the works here were masterpieces of concentrated energy and laconic expression. None was a "conductor's piece" programmed to show off the maestro's flair. They made up a programme in which playing of consistent quality, rather than drawing attention to itself - with one big exception - got everybody talking.

Mozart's Haffner Symphony has had the image of something of a lightweight. Here, it had a focus and multilayered vitality that held the attention at all levels. It began with restraint, but pace and vitality brought it to a temperature that it kept through to the light and fizzy finale. Suave more than sensual, the polished phrasing was supported by great care over internal detail and a sure sense of direction.

With Stephen Hough as soloist, the Saint-Saëns Fifth Piano Concerto was bound to be an occasion for spectacular virtuosity. It was exceptional: breathtaking pace, thunderous rapid octaves, extremes of delicacy and a constant pressure to move ahead kept the audience dazzled. In truth, it was a touch too brittle and rapid for properly Gallic grace. But - and this was the overriding impact - what a piece!

Overshadowed by the Second, it has always seemed the most spontaneous and original of Saint-Saëns' concertos for his own instrument. On the one hand, there's the way its finale short-cuts from an unlikely ragtime-style start to an end of irresistible zest, given joyous momentum here. On the other is the Arabic content of what goes before, with its call to prayer accompanied by the pounding heart of an observer, its evocations of frogs and cicadas, and its imitation of Egyptian instruments. Hough's touch transformed it into a convincing stab at fusion long before its time.

After this, Sibelius seemed as inviting as a dip in the Baltic. Vanska had other ideas, as the quiet but epic harp chords of The Bard set off an adventure of mysterious viola mutterings and wisps of melody. So well timed was its one fierce moment of arousal that the simple ending seemed audacious to the point of wit.

A similar punctuality featured in the Symphony No 3, Sibelius's least showy such work. It is hardly a vehicle for a conductor's vanity, but the rendition showed how crucial is the way it is directed, so its cumulative exhilaration can build, and its sudden withdrawals of force can help rather than hinder the process.

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