All you need is love. Really? Musical inspiration over the ages has undoubtedly drawn on diverse sources, including alcohol (Mussorgsky springs to mind) and a range of narcotic substances (Berlioz himself was no stranger to opium). But it is the power of love, in its many guises, which has unlocked the greatest creative energies, none more so than in the figure of the female muse. This was the potent theme running through the final concert in the current LPO season, in which young Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, making his concerto debut with the orchestra, was partnered by the Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.

Narek Hakhnazaryan © Intermusica
Narek Hakhnazaryan
© Intermusica

Dvořák’s great Cello Concerto comes from the last decade of his life when he was living in America and is in a reflective, rather than heroic, vein. He was certainly homesick at the time and then, in the midst of composition, he learned of the terminal illness of his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, with whom he had once fallen passionately in love. One of his songs, “Leave me alone” (Op.82, no. 1), was one of her personal favourites and Dvořák quotes it both in the slow movement and towards the end of the finale.

In this work, the cello never attempts to ride the orchestral textures. Any successful performance depends both on the sensitive interplay of the woodwinds with the soloist and also a conductor who shapes the accompaniment judiciously. Guerrero’s approach was to set a moderate and flexible tempo, giving full weight to the way in which the lower strings provide a bedrock of support and from which the initial horn solo emerged magically. Hakhnazaryan’s first entry was confident and full-toned, and as the reading progressed there was much to admire, especially in the frequent duetting with the LPO’s fine band of wind soloists. The cadenza of the slow movement, the spiritual heart of the work, saw wonderfully expressive examples of this interplay with flute, then timpani and bassoons. These sylvan sounds, accompanied by gentle forest murmurings from the lower strings, revealed the care that had gone into preparing the performance.

Hakhnazaryan comes with an impressive pedigree of competition successes, yet is very self-contained, not showy or demonstrative at all. With him we are definitely in white wine, rather than red wine territory. At times I could have wished for a little more assertiveness on his part and greater rhythmic tautness from Guerrero, but there was a clear unanimity of spirit between them. Hakhnazaryan’s love of his homeland was manifest in his choice of encore, the Lamentatio of contemporary Italian composer and fellow-cellist, Giovanni Sollima, which the soloist dedicated to the many victims of the Armenian massacres exactly a century ago. The soloist provided his own vocalisations to a score with impressive pyrotechnics, in which the full range of the instrument is exploited, including highly technical feats of double-stopping.

It was obvious how much Guerrero, conducting from memory, loves the main work. Composed a mere three years after Beethoven’s death and with more than just a backward glance at the Pastoral Symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique has, and needs to have, revolutionary potential. Writing to a friend in 1829 the composer said, “I mean to stagger the musical world.” The long third movement, an Adagio offering an oasis of calm, is the bridge between the world of imagined reality in the first two and the world of imagined nightmare in the last two movements. A victim of his own unrequited love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (whom he eventually married), Berlioz referred to love as “that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything.”

The performance started as a true awakening, languid and beautifully phrased, with a silken glow to the strings. Soft, cantabile phrases seemed to bring out the best in Guerrero and his careful balancing of instrumental detail was testament to his sensitivity. But this is a symphony which, with its rising longing and falling despair, is the epitome of Romanticism. Mercurial shifts in mood drive the musical argument on. The Waltz (with three harps in attendance) was merely graceful, with little evidence of joie de vivre or the feverish intensity that characterises its conclusion. The central Scène aux champs, the titanic presence of four sets of timpani at the end notwithstanding, tended to meander. And come the March to the Scaffold, the brass were a little too well-behaved, with trombones rounded and triumphant rather than menacing and snarling. This was clearly one hero who was actually looking forward to his own execution. Where was the manic element in the Witches' Sabbath? Even the fugal section for strings emerged as too controlled, the col legno episode for violins sounding merely like chattering teeth in the cold. Sometimes you need more than just love.

***11