Musical journeys are always opportunities for discovery for though composers are more often than not firmly embedded in their surroundings, their imagination is free to roam. The ability of the interpreter then lies in turning mere impressions into something more coherent.

Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve | Warner Classics

Pictures of the Rhineland lie at the heart of Schumann’s Third Symphony, which formed the main work in this concert given by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester under the direction of Pablo Heras-Casado. He chose a very lean and clean approach to the score, using just four double basses. The tendency to strip Schumann right back to his bare bones is a comparatively new phenomenon. Doing so effectively nails the myth that this particular composer didn’t know how to orchestrate, since individual lines retained an admirable transparency, allowing the counter-rhythms and the thrilling horns to make their mark in the opening movement. 

However, if you then use minimal vibrato, a lot gets left behind. There was not much E flat grandeur at the start, still less the weight and solemnity needed to do justice to Schumann’s impressions of Cologne Cathedral in the fourth movement. Nor did the lyrical lines in the second really sing out as they should have done. Even more problematic was the fact that Heras-Casado chose to ignore the composer’s marking of “very moderate” for this Scherzo. At this speed those out for the day on the river-boats would have had only the faintest glimpse of the Lorelei. The Finale brought the best of the playing, light on its feet with elfin Mendelssohnian textures and with proper exuberance in the closing brass fanfares.

Heras-Casado’s predilection for pointillism throughout this concert never fully repaid dividends. Things had not got off to the best of beginnings in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, with questionable wind and brass chording and a lack of pinpoint precision from the strings. I was surprised too by an absence of real atmosphere. These miniature masterpieces should tingle with character and anticipation, yet though there was indeed plenty of moonlight in the third interlude there was little awareness of any mounting oppression. Heras-Casado offered some dramatic energy in the final interlude but well under the degree of ferocity needed to make this storm truly terrifying. Suffolk can sometimes be a bleak part of this world, exposed to all the elements.

Is Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain more than just three nocturnes stitched together? That again depends on the interpreters. This work is not really a display vehicle for the soloist, since the piano, despite occasional instances of bravura, is an additional colour in the overall orchestral tapestry. Bertrand Chamayou’s deft and clean passagework was a notable feature of this performance, and he picked up neatly on the syncopations and jazz-like inflections in the final representation of the gardens of Sierra de Córdoba. However, his pianism was heard to much better effect in his encore, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, not only in the precise articulation as waters cascaded playfully in all directions but also the ravishing dynamic control.

What I again missed from Heras-Casado was more evidence of Iberian temperament and atmosphere. There was a good ebb and flow in the dynamics and climaxes were built powerfully, with solid playing from the horns. Yet I expected much sharper dance rhythms in the Danza lejana, and not enough was made of the quivering tremolos of the violas that imitate the traditional strumming technique of flamenco guitarists. There were elements of spookiness, for instance in the three spectral flutes set against suspenseful strings, but little warmth or opulence elsewhere. And aren’t Iberian nights also about sultriness?