Perhaps it was the inclemency of the weather, or the mid-afternoon scheduling, but this concert was not the sell out it should have been. It may, of course, have had something to do with the unusual programming - a string quartet (the Borodin) led the first half (Shostakovich's G minor Piano Quintet) and a symphonic work the second (Beethoven's Eroica). Part of an ongoing international series of concerts extending over two years, and programming the complete string quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich with selected symphonic and chamber works by both composers, it is an unusual format but one which works particularly well.
What made this afternoon so astonishing was the quality of the playing, from both orchestra and quartet. The refurbished Barbican was at last given the opportunity to see how it would cope with one of the world's most sumptuous sounding orchestras (the LSO, to be honest, don't quite sound like their Hamburg colleagues - no British orchestra does). From the very opening hammer-blow chords of the Eroica that special, opulent string sound emerged like a velvet hood. The depth of tone (not just from the basses and cellos, but from perfectly integrated violins) was extraordinary to hear. There may not have been much space between the bar lines in this performance (Eschenbach gave the opening movement a compelling urgency) but it had a gravity which suggested the grandest architectural splendour, particularly in the second and last movements which were transposed into mighty, granitic edifices. Eschenbach might not be the most profound Beethoven interpreter but he gave us a fresh and spontaneous performance which, at times, was electrifying (the fugue and variations in the Funeral March were heavenly) and one which seemed to border on the boundaries of being sedate and storm tossed. Christoph Eschenbach's conducting, affected by an ongoing injury, at times implied this was a performance redolent with anxiety and pain.
The sheer weight of the NDR's Beethoven contrasted with an astonishingly refined performance of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet. Aesthetic and neo-classical in a way which belies its year of composition (1940) it can almost appear understated in some performances. Not so with the Borodins and their pianist, Ludmila Berlinskaia (replacing Christoph Eschenbach who was still recovering from a shoulder injury). This performance was classically proportioned with an almost Bachian control over dynamics. The movements were each distinct in mood - frantic in the Scherzo, desolate in the Adagio and lyrical in the Allegretto and the playing was occasionally Spartan enough to suggest the work's war-time origins might be closer to the heart of this work than some performances suggest. The playing was impeccable.