Striking phrases are a marketing dream. “Dancing on the edge”, with its allusions to volcanic activity, was how the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its Principal Guest Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada chose to herald this concert. The phrase in question has been round the block a good many times, in the service for instance of a German Expressionist film, countless novels and not least a single malt whisky. So did the content actually match what was on the tin?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Martin Sigmund
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Martin Sigmund

Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 is as good a curtain-raiser as any overture. Launched with a felicitous clarinet solo from Robert Plane and mellifluous contributions from oboe and flute, followed by pliant and opulent strings, the platform quickly became the centre of all-embracing waves of seductive warmth. Orozco-Estrada was alive to the lilt and tilt of this infectious sequence of folk dances, nudging and edging the music inexorably on.

Pascal Dusapin’s double concerto for violin and cello, written for the partnership of Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, sports an odd title. At Swim-Two-Birds, here being given its UK première, is also the title of an experimental, pre-World War 2 novel by Flann O’Brien, which is spiked with mythological content and which refers eponymously to a ford on the River Shannon. Except that, according to the programme notes, Dusapin had no intention of creating a musical equivalent of the book. The closest we came to anything mythological was in the ethereal sounds from the solo violin, exploiting the potential of microtonality and suggestive of a world beyond.

Despite being scored for a fairly large orchestra, the full ensemble is rarely engaged. Instead, there are recurring longer sections for both solo instruments interlaced with passages of duetting, in which the violin is frequently heard in its uppermost register. This performance assumed a crystalline quality through the purity of Mullova’s line, especially when set against the rock-steady underpinning of Barley’s cello. Occasional snarls from the brass and agitated counterpoint from the wind are, however, the only moments of incipient drama.

Unlike some contemporary works, this piece doesn’t clamour for attention or assault the ears. The underlying pulse hardly varies throughout its 30-minute duration, the two slowish movements blended into a gigantic continuum in which a chamber-like delicacy prevails, tinged with the merest flecks of additional colour from individual percussion. There is an undeniably atmospheric elegance to the writing, but ultimately this music is somewhat directionless. I felt rather like the rider on a fairground carousel, seeing the same elements repeatedly coming into view and then disappearing, but conscious also of a developing blur in the background. There is a degree of recognition to be sure and the top keeps spinning, but more startlingly a sense of vertigo which is never quite dispelled. Unsettling and disturbing.

How different to move after the interval into the Technicolor world of Martinů’s Fourth Symphony. From the outset Orozco-Estrada underlined the piquancy of the wind writing, the pulsating rhythms and teeming energy which seemed to jump straight out of Petrushka, as well as the dance-like capriciousness heard to potent effect in the scherzo, shot through with a sense of battles finally overcome. Written in 1945, this symphony exudes the optimism and confidence that tomorrow’s world will be brighter and better. In fact, the only backward glance at anything apocalyptic comes in the heartfelt slow movement, placed third, which opens with a threnody for strings (the cellos and basses of the LPO especially sonorous here). Only a few moments of slack ensemble and insufficient attention to the important antiphonal exchanges between horns and trumpets detracted from the rumbustious quality of the finale.

A lot has been read into Ravel’s celebration of the age of the waltz. It is worth pointing out that the composer himself stated in 1922: “I did not envisage a dance of death or a struggle between life and death.” This is clearly how Orozco-Estrada sees the score. His La Valse began like the ticking of a carriage-clock, like the wheels of the Orient Express gently turning, graced with an inescapably perfumed delicacy to the string lines. Absolutely no hint whatsoever of a sleazy, smoke-filled subterranean space, this was a classical waltz danced in an elegant riverside château, the sunlight flooding in through open windows. No sleepy languor and certainly no sinister undercurrents. Even in the frenzy of the final bars the control never slackened: no suggestion that the wheels might suddenly be about to come off the cart.

So altogether this evening offered, with the exception of the Dusapin work, much in the way of terpsichorean extravaganzas. But eruptions, explosions, excursions into volcanology and an awareness of the abyss below? Not really. But then, by the time you get to the final page of the novel you are reading, you can’t always remember exactly what was on the cover design, can you?

****1