“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth’s cold view of life doubles as a good analysis of Richard Strauss’ first tone poem – brassy fanfares and empty bombast, alleviated with a heavy dose of gloomy introspection. Continuing the London Philharmonic’s Shakespeare400 season, Andrés Orozco-Estrada paired earthy Strauss with airy Mendelssohn in robust performances, followed by fiery Stravinsky. In between came Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, a brash piece, bursting with primary colours, but Kristóf Baráti helped turn it into the subtlest performance of the night.

Kristóf Baráti © Marco Borggreve
Kristóf Baráti
© Marco Borggreve

Making his London debut, Baráti impressed with the dark tone of his 1703 ‘Lady Harmsworth’ Stradivarius, employing plenty of vibrato, muscular double-stopping and clean trills. He stands tall, feet pressed together, his only flamboyant gesture being an athletic backbend. He cast more light and shade on Khachaturian’s concerto than is often the case, discovering delicate poetry in the central Andante sostenuto. His face betrayed little emotion until an orchestral passage in the second movement where Orozco-Estrada finally unleashed the brass and Baráti allowed himself a grin. Khachaturian’s concerto is a tremendous showpiece, unearthing the composer’s Armenian roots in the folk-like finale. Perhaps Baráti drew on his Hungarian background here, fiddling assuredly through the gypsy-like melodies.

The LPO’s accompaniment was tentative in the first movement, possibly wary after nearly coming off the rails early on, despite Orozco-Estrada’s clear military beat. However, the finale’s dance rhythms swirled and stamped infectiously. During Baráti’s tender Bach Largo encore, a look of unadulterated bliss passed across the faces of more than one of the LPO’s first violins.

This is my third consecutive review in which I’ve encountered Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of the three, this was easily the most brusque, featuring rather earthbound fairies but lusty Mechanicals. Orozco-Estrada’s bullish approach to the Bard was better suited to Strauss’ Macbeth, an empty piece of orchestral writing, but in a bold, punchy performance with brass fanfares of the paint-stripping variety. A sinuous woodwind theme represents Lady Macbeth’s ambitious manoeuvring, vividly captured here, while doom laden cellos and contrabassoons growl over Macbeth’s corpse just before the end. 

Orozco-Estrada excelled in the 20-minute romp through Stravinsky’s Firebird that is the 1919 Suite. The ballet is a huge crowd-pleaser, and this distillation includes many of the best moments. Utilising the full forces of the LPO, this was another no holds barred reading, urged on by the young Colombian conductor. Double basses sighed and slithered as we picked our way into the realm of ‘Kastchei the Deathless’ before woodwinds announced the flickering arrival of the Firebird, complete with trilling flute and piccolo chirrups. Indeed, the storytelling from the woodwinds was most animated throughout. A breathless hush from the strings led the mysterious lullaby as Kastchei’s demons are sent to sleep via the Firebird’s magical powers. But this was the LPO Brass Show – raucous trombones in the Infernal Dance, John Ryan’s noble horn call announcing the closing hymn, followed by trumpet-led celebrations as Prince Ivan claims his bride. A boisterous end to an enjoyably boisterous evening. 

***11