The latter half of the 19th century was a golden age for Russian orchestral writing, from the early folk-influenced work of Borodin to the lush melodies of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Alondra de la Parra showcased three of the most popular orchestral works from this period, nicely highlighting the musical and cultural continuity between the works. De la Parra drew a dazzling range of colours from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, with everyone onstage on particularly inspired form.

Alondra de la Parra
© Erika Mayer

The evening opened with a whirlwind rendition of Glinka’s overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila, a fiendishly difficult orchestral showpiece encompassing the main themes from the opera. Taken at an exuberant pace, de la Parra nevertheless retained absolute control over the orchestra — the rushing scales in the strings have surely never sounded cleaner. Similarly, the woodwind fugato in the development was beautifully paced, full of hushed intensity and colour. The enthusiasm and sweep of the final bars were a rousing start to the concert and earned a well-deserved ovation.

Premiered just over 50 years later but already musically and emotionally worlds away, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, Op.18 has become one of his most enduringly popular pieces. Despite being known above all as a superlative pianist, Rachmaninov was also a superb symphonic composer. De la Parra understood the symphonic nature of the concerto well, and was ideally matched in having pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist. Grosvenor has become known for his subtle, intellectual musicianship — upon first glance, an odd match for Rachmaninov’s bombastic score. However, he and de la Parra offered a beautifully balanced rendition from the very start, with the opening piano chords nearly inaudible and gaining in intensity and tension until the orchestra took over with the opening theme. In contrast to the sparkling virtuosity of the Glinka, the LPO played with a plush velvety sound, with wonderful rhythmic impetus provided by a driving bass section. The opening movement provided an ideal contrast between the long-lined lyricism of the second theme and the hammered, almost percussive use of the piano in the recapitulation. The recapitulation was particularly impressive, flooding the hall with sound from both orchestra and soloist.

This was beautifully contrasted with the intimacy of the second movement, in which the soloist takes an accompanying role to an extended clarinet solo. A highlight of the evening was the astonishing, almost outrageously luxuriant sound from guest principal clarinettist Sergio Castelló López. Throughout the movement, the melody was passed through the orchestra with a chamber music-like finesse before ending in a dreamy cadenza for the soloist. The final movement is perhaps the most conventional concerto movement, placing the attention fully on the soloist. Grosvenor’s playing missed an element of bravura, with the fiendishly difficult octave runs sounding almost too easy. Nevertheless, it was an excellent showcase for Grosvenor’s astonishing technique and once again earned rapturous applause; his encore of Rachmaninov’s Lilacs was played with serene, almost Debussy-esque dexterity.

Benjamin Grosvenor
© Patrick Allen |

However, it was in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor, Op.64 that de la Parra and her orchestra were allowed to truly shine. De la Parra went for a swift reading of the work, with particular emphasis on the brass interruptions — one never forgot the cyclical nature of the work and that even the most glorious of melodies were under the shadow of the ever-returning fate motif. This approach was most evident in a particularly propulsive account of the opening movement. Following the hushed tension of the opening (featuring once again outstanding playing from the clarinet section), we were launched straight away into the relentless dotted rhythms of the main theme. The movement was kept under strict dynamic control, which effectively framed the few outbursts when they arose. The movement perhaps missed an element of rhythmic flexibility, but this was more than made up for in an indulgently luxurious second movement. Taken at a dangerously slow tempo, the opening horn solo was beautifully sculpted in molten gold tone. The string section sounded richer than I have ever heard them, particularly in the highest reaches of the lower strings. Once again, this was effectively contrasted with the inevitable interrupting brass chords - an emotionally draining journey for both orchestra and audience.

The intensity of the first two movements was contrasted with the understated elegance of the third movement, featuring finessed playing particularly from the violins. Again taken at a swift pace, the movement had a wonderful sweep, critical given the comparatively lightweight musical content of the movement. Most radical was the finale - the transformation of the funereal fate theme into a major key was given a Shostakovich-esque pessimism, rather than the typical interpretation of triumph. Consistent with this, the strings adopted an edgy, almost sardonic sound, and shocking brass chords in the final pages had a threatening air: truly Tchaikovsky at his most exciting.