LSO and Michael Tilson Thomas with Yuja Wang at the Barbican review

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There’s a theory doing the rounds, yet to be fully tested, that post-lockdown audiences are hungry not so much for the tried and tested as for new experiences. The LSO seems to be hedging its bets in the opening concerts of its foreshortened season by offering typically innovative programmes under Simon Rattle and more traditional fare under the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Michael Tilson Thomas. That last night’s concert, like its two repeats today, are all sold out – albeit to reduced-capacity audiences – suggests that such concessions to populism as Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony will always be safe investments.

They were preceded by Tilson Thomas’s heartfelt account of Grieg’s The Last Spring, setting the mood of melancholy for the Rachmaninov. The latter may be an old warhorse, but the canny invitation to the Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang to play it ensured that the old nag was ridden in style. Wang’s fingerwork is as dazzling as her shocking-pink evening wear. I hope I may be forgiven the sartorial observation, but it’s not irrelevant: there’s something similarly attention-seeking about her phrasing and tonal shading. Whether it’s felt genuinely to emerge from the music itself is perhaps a matter of taste, but there’s no denying it’s arresting and individual. Far better that than a banal, workaday reading – something no one could ever accuse Wang of delivering.

It’s also true that while Rachmaninov’s massive sonorities hold no terrors for her, she’s equally capable of exquisitely nuanced playing, as evidenced by the beautifully weighted chords at the close of the second movement and the delicate filigree of the opening of the third.

If there was less originality in Tilson Thomas’s Beethoven, it was nevertheless a robust, muscular performance and occasionally stirring. The articulation of the strings was heavy rather than pointed in an historically informed manner. The brass in climactic moments tended towards the clangorous. The orchestra generally sounded in good form, however, and seemed as pleased to see us as we were them.

The new Covid etiquette is going to take some getting used to. Audience members are expected to keep their masks on, unless sipping the red wine they’re now allowed to take in. Photography and recording are still forbidden, but we are now permitted to read our programme notes on our phones. Some may think this feels like the thin end of the wedge.

Barbican, EC2. Programme repeated May 27, 3.30pm and 6.30pm, barbican.org.uk

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