In the depths of winter, it was pleasant – and canny – programming by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to put together a concert dominated by Spanish music, of which we hear far too little in this country. The headline piece of the concert was the most famous guitar work in the classical repertoire, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, but to my surprise the work that stood out was a short recent work by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, a riot of colour and sensation.

© Esther Haase

We started in the New World with Copland’s El Salón México, a short work which derived from Copland’s visit to Mexico at the invitation of the composer Carlos Chávez where he spent a great deal of time in a three-halled Harlem-style nightclub where classes would mingle and patrons were discouraged from dropping cigarette butts on the floor lest they burn the toes of ladies dancing barefoot! Karen Kamensek’s reading was at its best in the quieter moments, emphasising the humour in the bassoon. For much of the time, however, the performance felt clinical, overly controlled; one sat waiting for Kamensek to let the orchestra loose, to give us a hedonistic whirl. 

The world premiere came courtesy of David Bruce. Guitarist Miloš Karadaglić joined the orchestra on stage for The Peacock Pavane. Both ‘Peacock’ and ‘Pavane’ are redolent with a stately magnificence and there was a certain beauty in Bruce’s writing with a tinge of melancholy that sharpened the piece. Particularly lovely was the noise of the violins at points behind the guitar, the sound swooping in a way that evoked birdcalls, while Miloš skipped lightly across the notes, his touch deft, but mild. The latter half was slightly less memorable, though the accomplished blend of woodwind in the backdrop against the guitar stood out. A rewarding listen, though, and one felt the emotional complexity. 

The Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the most fragrantly evocative pieces in the repertoire and Miloš has a total mastery of the work. The light, supple playing of the introduction to the first movement throbbed with heat, shadowed by the oaky sound of cellist Kristīne Blaumane who delivered gorgeous solo playing. Woodwinds flickered and bustled, like crickets or cicadas calling from the fields. Kamensek kept the LPO tightly disciplined, the sounds adroitly balanced with Miloš. The Adagio, one long earworm, opened with Sue Böhling’s glorious cor anglais shimmering over Miloš' muted strumming, the balance perfectly judged, the pacing on point. In the third movement, Miloš gave us some virtuosic runs on the instrument, his playing varying from sharp definition to a Turner-esque haze and back again. A thoughtful Lágrima by Tárrega was an excellent encore.

Ortiz’ Antropolis was, in many respects, a modern counterpart to the Copland. “Antro” is a Mexican term for a bar or a nightclub and Ortiz uses this as a starting point for a composition that takes us on an aural journey of Mexico via its nightlife. The piece anchors around some dramatic solos for the timpani, dispatched with cheerful flair by Simon Carrington. A brass introduction led into a sinuous percussion-heavy dance (I enjoyed the wiggling shoulders of some of the older members of the audience, clearly delighted). Ortiz’s writing shows an almost Straussian grip on orchestration: large forces deployed in riotous colour, teetering on the brink of chaos but restrained by Kamensek from going over. Punchy brass, innovative percussion and vocal contributions from the orchestra made hearing the piece a thrill.

In many respects, the suites from Falla’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat are disappointing when measured against the full score. The highlight was the consistently strong performance of the bassoon, pert and witty, in the first suite, while the second, more dance-oriented, was gently poised.