Who doesn’t like a party? Kick off in the right mood, amidst garlands and bunting, with copious amounts of alcohol to lower any inhibitions, and you’re away. Jaime Martín, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, seemed determined at the outset of this party-like concert to conjure up an atmosphere of fun and celebration in true fiesta style.

Jaime Martín © Alexander Lindström
Jaime Martín
© Alexander Lindström

Manuel de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos is an ideal advertisement for the landscapes of sun-soaked Spain and its vibrant dance rhythms. The work was originally conceived as a farsa mimica (mimed farce) before Diaghilev persuaded the composer to recast it as a full ballet for his Ballets Russes. The narrative is a simple triangular entanglement, involving a miller, his wife and the local magistrate (“El Corregidor”) whose scarcely-disguised machismo and self-importance (the three-cornered hat is his badge of office) lead him to think he can make free with any woman of his choice. These days it is rarely performed in its entirety, and conductors often select the most obviously spectacular movements to demonstrate orchestral virtuosity. This is a pity, since there is more subtlety and range of expression in the full work than there was in this 23-minute selection of highlights. At times it seemed as though Martín was pumping unnecessary amounts of high-octane fuel into an orchestra already firing on all eight cylinders. The vehemence of the playing with its constantly pounding rhythms became almost counter-productive. The LSO was unquestionably impressive, both in the sharpness of attack from the strings and in the dazzling splashes of colour extracted from the woodwinds and brass. Unbridled power was there in spades right through to the slightly nervy exuberance of the final jota, but whenever Martín relaxed his tight hold over the orchestra and allowed individual players the freedom to explore subtleties of phrasing – as in the very characterful cor anglais solo – there were noticeable gains.

Continuing the Iberian theme in the first half, Martín’s soloist in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole was the redoubtable Christian Tetzlaff. The work is a teasing mix of symphony, concerto and character-piece, its Spanish elements in this performance much more to the fore than any French appurtenances. This is understandable, since the piece was inspired by and dedicated to Spanish virtuoso Sarasate, and helped to inaugurate a tradition of Spanish-inspired music in France that included the contemporaneous Carmen through Chabrier’s España to Debussy’s Iberia, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and beyond. Tetzlaff took some time to settle, stressing with a wide vibrato the gypsy-like earthiness of those opening phrases. It was almost like being in a bodega, surrounded not only by the fruits of viticulture but by the sacks of aromatic coffee traditionally stored there. I missed the smile in the music at this point (but registered the excitability), not helped by a feeling that I was also being harangued by the orchestral accompaniment.

The scherzando second movement opened to excessively loud dynamic levels, but happily the introduction of the seguidilla led to charm-filled moments of intimacy in which orchestra and soloist were by now well-matched. I was quite surprised after the earlier accentuations in Martín’s accompaniment to find him taking me at the outset of the winning fourth movement to orchestral territory that sounded distinctly Central European. Rich in sonority and timbre, this could have been the slow movement to the violin concerto that Bruckner never wrote. Tetzlaff’s hushed dynamics captured this mood of repose, nudging the music gently towards elegiac wistfulness, before returning to a sense of undiluted good cheer in the finale. Here the lightness of his touch was echoed in the gossamer interplay among the wind and brass. In contrast, Tetzlaff’s encore was completely classical: the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Third Partita.

Stravinsky was one of the canniest composers around: he knew how to maximise his own potential. From his 1910 ballet The Firebird he made three separate suites: the first a year after the première, the second in 1919 and the last in 1945 for a modestly-sized orchestra. Given the extra forces available to the LSO for the first half, and its pedigree in playing not only the full ballet but also the 1919 compilation, Martín’s choice of the 1945 suite with which to close this concert seemed unusual. By now we had forsaken the hothouse atmosphere for something cooler. Martin secured especially eloquent playing from all his woodwind principals, together with a finely floated horn solo that ushered in the Final Hymn, clearly relishing the delicacy of the many chamber-like passages. A single instance of the exquisite realisation of colour and atmosphere would be the clarinet morendo just before the Infernal Dance burst in with chords like sledgehammer blows. Here there was no hint of any velvet glove to go with the iron fist. The party had achieved its knockout punch.

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