It can’t be easy for conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada to have to play second fiddle to senior maestros on the Vienna Philharmonic’s tour. First it was playing subordinate to Maestro Haitink in the summer tour, including at the BBC Proms when he had to conduct the day after Haitink’s farewell Bruckner 7, and then on the orchestra’s current Far East tour, he has had to alternate with Maestro Thielemann in China and Japan. At Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, where the orchestra has an annual residency (going back decades), he had to follow Thielemann’s Bruckner 8 on Monday with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on Wednesday.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Suntory Hall

The pianist in the Rachmaninov concerto was Yefim Bronfman. He is probably one of the top interpreters of this concerto of our age (and has probably played it more often than most pianists), and I am in awe of his phenomenal technique and his understanding of this monumental piece as a whole. Unlike some virtuosos, he doesn’t strike the piano percussively at all, but seems to just place his body weight on his arms and hands, producing a rounded and weighty sound that can easily compete with the ample sonority of the VPO. His sound control is impressive, from the most delicate pianissimos to the massive texture of the climaxes, and every shade in between. His fingerwork in the fast runs and cascades of arpeggios were dizzying – if anything, it seemed as he was always trying to play faster, and Orozco-Estrada was having to play catch up.

Yefim Bronfman and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Suntory Hall

What I missed in Bronfman’s interpretation was the detailed shaping and articulation of the smaller phrases, which seem to pass him by. He uses very little rubato and rarely lingers in phrasing melodies, and it feels as if he’s always rushing forward. His playing certainly had momentum, but it wasn’t always shared with the orchestra. Orozco-Estrada, meanwhile, was allowing the orchestra to take a lusher approach, bringing out the orchestral colours affectionately (some lovely solo contributions from the woodwind) and pulling back the tempo somewhat each time, but when the piano solo entered it would run away again. So, satisfying on a macro level but not so on a micro level.

The Rite of Spring was a slightly odd choice for the VPO on tour. Perhaps Orozco-Estrada chose it because the work brings out his strengths (his recording with his hr-Sinfonieorchester has been highly acclaimed), and also it’s something Thielemann wouldn’t conduct nowadays.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Suntory Hall

According to the informative programme booklet by Professor Otto Biba, the director of the Musikverein archives, the orchestra performed the Viennese premiere in 1925, so it must be in their genes by now. It was indeed a Rite with a Viennese sonority. Orozco-Estrada kept a tight rein and led an animated account of the work – sometimes even dancing on the podium – and the players gave a focused and committed performance, yet it still lacked the bite, the rawness and primitive thrill one expects.

What they lacked in thrill and attack, however, they made up for with lusciousness of sonority. Principal bassoon Sophie Dervaux opened with a dreamy and melancholic solo, and we savoured the rich and weighty sound of the horns and brass section. Although one sensed a slight sluggishness of response in the strings section in Part 1 (The Adoration of the Earth), the energy level rose markedly in Part 2 (The Sacrifice), especially from the whooping rhythms in the Glorification of the Chosen One onwards, building up to the riotous climax. To follow this immediately with a frothy encore of Josef Strauss’ Ohne Sorgen polka, complete with audience participation, felt to me like undoing all the hard work. Still, it certainly made the fans of the orchestra happy.