Classical composers have much to answer for. If they produce anything that is remotely atmospheric, this often ends up being immortalised in a modern motion-picture but without those audiences necessarily being any the wiser. Mozart probably has more hits in this regard than anybody else; of these the clarinet concerto (the last of his purely instrumental works) stands out in particular, forming as it does part of the soundtrack in a number of films including Out of Africa and The King’s Speech.

Julian Bliss © Ben Wright
Julian Bliss
© Ben Wright

K622 was written a mere seven weeks before his death, but there is no reason to suppose that the work is valedictory rather than celebratory, since the outer movements radiate joy and vitality, with seemingly inexhaustible melodic lines. If conductor and soloist are well matched, as was the case in this performance by Julian Bliss (playing a custom-built basset clarinet with golden keys) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Guest Conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the concerto affords an opportunity for chamber-like intimacies instead of merely showcasing the instrument. In the opening Allegro the key is finding the tempo giusto and a happy medium in which the individual lines emerge with a sense of unforced inevitability – to quote Goldilocks, not too hot and not too cold. What impressed in this reading was not only the freshness that Bliss brought to his part but the attentiveness of the accompaniment, with dynamic shadings matching those of the soloist.

As in the slow movement of his piano concerto K467 (purloined for Elvira Madigan), Mozart succeeds in creating in the Adagio of his clarinet concerto moments when time appears to stand still. Here Bliss conjured up a succession of beguiling sounds, especially from the lower register of his instrument with its additional semitones, and as the movement drew to a close there was an ethereal quality with little more than susurrations from the strings.

The concert had opened with the overture to perhaps the greatest of all German Romantic operas, Der Freischütz, most of which plays in semi-darkness. Orozco-Estrada clearly wished to make a broad statement with a big sound, using a full string complement consisting of ten double-basses. There was plenty of atmosphere initially and the LPO flexed their mighty collective muscles, but in the molto vivace section the inherent wildness and terror – the work overflows with supernatural elements – were kept somewhat in check.

Writing in 1920, the American music critic Paul Rosenfeld likened Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony to “a mournful banqueting on jam and honey” and 25 years later the composer Virgil Thomson dismissed it as “mud and sugar”. Well into the 1970s this almost hour-long work was often reduced to a mere 45 minutes: the New York Philharmonic Orchestra has a list of 29 cuts, all supposedly sanctioned by the composer himself. Apart from some of Bruckner’s symphonies, there is scarcely a work which has so regularly been subject to the butcher’s knife. All credit then to Orozco-Estrada for performing this symphony in full and without the disputed ending to the first movement with its notorious timpani thwack.

Rachmaninov wrote his E minor symphony away from his homeland, in the German city of Dresden. A sense of nostalgia, a yearning for what-might-have-been and a nervous fragility (he had only recently recovered from a severe mental breakdown) are woven into the tapestry of this score. I have no doubt that Orozco-Estrada has a clear view of the piece, and his athleticism on the podium was an energising presence, but there are instances where Latin fire doesn’t marry well with smouldering Russian embers. It was strange to hear a conductor who had earlier created hushed sounds in Mozart rushing repeatedly at his fences, with dynamic levels that were initially too loud. In the development section the surges in the string lines were like painting by numbers – all in primary colours – rather than emerging organically. Rachmaninov builds his embers into a great log-fire that radiates throughout the remaining movements, but these early flames need to develop with stealth. The scherzo was full of Fiesta atmosphere, with playing that was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but there was no sting in the tail at the end: here the trombones, charged with echoing the Dies irae theme that has considerable significance in the composer’s oeuvre, lacked any sense of menace.

The melancholy and longing that are characteristic of the Russian soul form the emotional bedrock of the great Adagio. There are unmistakeable influences on Rachmaninov here from Tchaikovsky (whose inspiration he gladly acknowledged) and not least Balakirev, whose slow movement of his First Symphony has a similar clarinet theme. With a beautifully judged solo from Thomas Watmough the performance of this symphony at long last began to probe the considerable depths which give the lie to any idea of Rachmaninov being merely ostentatious.

***11