From dawn to nightfall in picture-postcard Spain followed by a detour to Kastchei’s magic garden, the Philharmonia didn’t stint on local colour in its programme conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. An excitable Firebird ballet followed a meticulous account of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, where the conductor was joined by fellow Spaniard Javier Perianes.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho

Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, from his set of piano pieces entitled Miroirs, was premiered by Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes in 1906. Its Galician rhythms and strummed guitar effects cried out for orchestration and the composer, whose mother came from the Basque region, duly obliged in 1918. Spiky pizzicatos launched this jester’s morning song with a good deal of bravado, accompanied by plenty of Heras-Casado fist pumps. After a mournful bassoon interlude, the boisterous mood resumed, ending in a dramatic swirl of castanets.

From the Alborada’s exuberance we moved to something painted in far subtler shades. Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain was inspired by the playing of the same pianist who premiered the Ravel, although its first performance was given by José Cubiles at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 1915. It’s a curious work though, not a concerto and with few opportunities for glory for the pianist. Where Heras-Casado whipped up sultry orchestral excitement, Perianes’ balmy playing cooled the Spanish heat. De Falla depicts three nocturnal Andalucian landscapes – perfumed gardens, rippling fountains, Granada’s Moorish Alhambra palace. Nimble-fingered guitar imitations were neat and trim and Perianes’ caressing touch seemed to stroke marble statues lining the courtyard. The work meanders though, ending with a shrug that demands a flashy encore. Perianes obliged, Heras-Casado plonking himself down among the woodwind section to enjoy the fireworks. De Fallas’ Ritual Fire Dance from El amor brujo was stuffed with extravagant trills, sweeping glissandos and percussive, stamping rhythms. As Carmen asks Don José, “Où sont mes castagnettes?” If the Spanish Tourist Board required an advertising soundtrack, this was it.

Javier Perianes © Josep Molina
Javier Perianes
© Josep Molina

The performance of The Firebird – the complete ballet rather than one of the suites – was packed with incident. Heras-Casado was unafraid to let the Philharmonia loose with Stravinsky’s palette, which is so evocative of the orchestration of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. Subterranean basses and glassy violins evoked the evil Kastchei’s realm where the perky firebird, exceptionally bright-eyed here, comes to steal golden apples. Batonless, Heras-Casado’s hands seemed to be manipulating an invisible marionette to narrate the tale. There were times when the winds didn’t always gel – unsurprising when flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns were all led by guest principals – and oboe lines were occasionally frayed, but Jennifer McLaren’s E flat clarinet squealed excitedly. This was a spry, purposeful account. The Khorovod (which uses the same folk tune that Rimsky-Korsakov used in his Sinfonietta) had Russian soul and the off-stage trumpets announcing Kastchei’s impending arrival were proclaimed from the balcony boxes. Heras-Casado detonated an explosive Infernal Dance, rattling xylophone and ripe brass doing fierce battle, before a somnolent bassoon (the excellent Todd Gibson-Cornish) purred in the Berceuse. The final hymn, well-paced, grew to an ecstatic climax to close an eventful programme in style.