Civil servants and excesses of excitement aren’t always a combination that springs immediately comes to mind; yet Emmanuel Chabrier found in musical composition such an absorbing hobby that he quit his day-job, and was so enraptured by a subsequent visit to Spain that he found himself feverishly writing down the tunes and rhythms of its folk culture, reimagining it as “una fantasia extraordinaria, muy española”.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud

The resultant orchestral rhapsody España is music triumphantly written by an amateur; no po-faced Conservatoire background here. The primary requirement therefore is that the orchestra let themselves go, enjoy the conceit of the orchestra-as-guitar, hurdy-gurdy brasses, fizzy strings, the devil-may-care loudness of the thing. It’s supposed to be fun, music to make you forget the grey North, of “tangled things and texts and aching eyes”. I’m not sure whether they –or we – were born-again Mediterranean, however. Maestro Christoph Eschenbach was enjoying himself, it is true, but whether he was tempted to actually hug the Concertmaster (Jeremy Black, a candidate for the associate role) in an excess of voluptuousness as Chabrier had excitedly told the original conductor that he would, is another question. The climax was thus a trifle damp – a bit too much rain in this Spain.

“A violin soaring above the rigid form of an old symphony” was how Édouard Lalo saw the idiosyncratic work that he wrote for virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Spanish violinist, Leticia Moreno gradually relaxed into her performance of the Symphonie espagnole. The lyrical passages were controlled rather than indulgently and luxuriously lush, and the elegiac passages rather too cerebral. Relationally, orchestra and soloist seemed somewhat disconnected although there were times, especially later in the work, when the dynamic was just right. Notably, however, in parts where soloist dominance was desirable – the soloist must be capable of beating back the orchestra, of putting them in their place, as it were, unceremoniously, even brutally – this simply did not occur. The violin’s voice was swamped, to the loss of the work’s energy and sense of direction. The fourth movement (the Andante) suited Moreno’s style which tended towards seriousness of purpose; by then, in any case, her greater ease was palpable and she carried off the final Rondo with more of the kind of panache the whole work needed. Henri Matisse once said that impressionism was the newspaper of the soul: here we needed a few more lurid headlines and full-colour spreads.

Claude Debussy’s Ibéria is a triptych within a Triptych (Images) and needs careful handling; he adamantly did not want it to be treated as a ‘robust symphony’ but as something more immaterial altogether. On the whole, this was a good rendition. The most elusive of the three movements is the central “Fragrances of the Night”, its muted strings and sonorous oboe melody, subtly suggesting half-hidden forms and scents, and the surreal visions of exotic Andalucian nights, never experienced by the Frenchman (he spent less than a day in Spain) but ‘felt’ in his imagination in a way that triumphantly transcends cliché. It is a musician’s music, admired by no less a personage than Pierre Boulez for its many subtleties. Frankly, it should not be readily unveiled or understood. The orchestra preserved the mystery effectively; we were left outside the gates of the garden with the enticing suggestions of what lay within.

What can be said of a work so well-known that isn’t already said? Much, apparently. Ravel’s Boléro is usually all about that snare drum. Here it was all about the conductor. Just as Ravel blasts the teleological progression conventional in Western music and strips all back to a primal rhythmic core before rebuilding it in ferocious instrumental intensity, Eschenbach abandoned the conventions of Western conducting in dramatic fashion. He stood absolutely still – rigid even – hands by side, baton unused – indicating the entries of instruments and dynamics by infinitesimal eye and then head movements, later more emphatic ones. The conceit was superb. It reflected not only Ravel’s own scenario for the score – often sidelined – that of automatons in a factory, with all that it means of the mechanistically modern, but also something older and more primal: the Dance, as conceived by Ida Rubenstein, the ballerina for whom the work was composed. And this is no ordinary dance but the sacral flamenco of the Andalucían gypsy, who has leapt onto the table under the brass lamps, surrounded by men. This woman dances for herself alone: the sinuosity and inexorable crescendo must develop independently from within the duende (soul). The orchestra, both dance and dancer, yielded to this abandon, once abandoned to themselves. Finally, at the music’s climax, Eschenbach raised his hands, fiercely and with immaculate timing. Now that’s making old music new. For we make contrary demands of music, after all: we want both expressiveness and control and both magnificently. And we got it here. To conduct with the head may also, on occasion, be the same as to conduct with the heart.

Not even great music, it would seem, can stop an American audience from the Gadarene rush to the exit to the safety of car and home; tonight, they leapt to their feet before they left. Compliment indeed. Chapeau bas