Still in his early 30s, Lahav Shani has been chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since 2018, and two years ago became music director of the Israel Philharmonic too. He’s one of the most upwardly mobile conductors around today. In the UK, however, he remains little known, even though he made his debut with the LSO in 2019 and, as this concert demonstrated, he has begun to forge a productive relationship with the Philharmonia, returning this time to conduct Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
There’s a brisk directness to Shani’s baton-less approach, and the Philharmonia seem to respond to it superbly. His tempo for the opening Allegro was on the fast side, which may have generated superficial excitement, but rather deprived the movement (which is marked “intense but pithy”) of some of the ominous weight that defines the symphony’s tragic journey. It also jarred with Shani’s decision to revert to Mahler’s original order for the central pair of movements, placing the Scherzo before the Andante. The sense of that manic section reinforcing the tragic insistence of the opening movement was diminished as a result, though it was followed by a wonderfully buoyant, rhapsodically shaped account of the Andante.
The huge finale of this symphony always presents the biggest interpretative challenges, and those were met head on and surmounted and the monstrous structure was steered towards its final catastrophe.
Before the symphony there had been a work contemporary with it, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, in which Lisa Batiashvili was the soloist. Her performance was compelling from the very first bar as she launched the concerto with the most daring of pianissimos, which Shani and the orchestra perfectly matched. It set the tone for a reading that was full of elegance and subtlety. Batiashvili’s virtuosity was as exceptional as ever, but it was never flaunted for its own sake; as she demonstrated, there’s much more to this concerto than empty showmanship.