Here’s a lethal Rachmaninov drinking game: down a finger of vodka at each quotation of the Dies irae. By the end of his Symphonic Dances, you’d be under the table. Rachmaninov had a strange fascination with the medieval chant, quoting it in works from his First Symphony up to this final orchestral composition. For last night’s programme with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada prefaced the Symphonic Dances with a rendition of the Gregorian Chant by the Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey as a red-frocked reconnaissance, briefing the audience what to listen out for.

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

Orozco-Estrada’s proposed segue from the chant straight into Rachmaninov’s final opus didn’t quite come off, despite the darkened hall and the conductor striking a pose to plunge right in, but the point was made. Each iteration of the Dies irae twisted the knife a little deeper in this death-obsessed work. The LPO woodwinds shone throughout, from belching contrabassoon to coiling oboe and clarinet tendrils that tease before the smoky saxophone leads the first dance. Cellos and first violins sighed and swooned in response. Orozco-Estrada has an energetic podium style, all knee flexes and angular hip bends, not always successfully transferred to the music-making. There are plenty of ritardandos and accelerandos in the sinister second movement waltz, but he pulled the tempi around too much, like overworked strudel dough. The finale was frenetic (with the Dies irae quotes piling up) keeping the percussion section busy – it’s the only time I’ve even seen a tambourine player require a page-turner! At the close, the tam-tam was allowed to resonate way beyond Rachmaninov’s diabolical final chord, Orozco-Estrada holding a finger skywards for a theatrical conclusion.

It’s a shame the first half hadn’t been quite as dramatic. In a programme billed as “Faith from the Shadows”, the darkness took political rather than demonic form. Dmitri Shostakovich and Pēteris Vasks both experienced life under Soviet rule, but in different circumstances. Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major was composed in the years following Stalin’s death, but the wit that punctuates it is of a determinedly grim variety. Hungarian cellist István Várdai gave a deeply introspective account, underplaying Shostakovich’s more demonstrative passages. It took a few moments for his intonation to settle, but his dry, husky cello tone suited the opening movement’s black humour. Often staring into the middle distance, Várdai was wrapped up in his own world, rarely seeming to allow orchestra and conductor to penetrate his cocoon. This was a pity, as the LPO offered vividly characterised support, woodwinds shrieking and wailing sardonically. Várdai was at his best in the third movement – a long cadenza thoughtfully phrased.

Vasks was born in 1946 in Latvia, then occupied by the Soviet Union. Dona nobis pacem is his mournful response to the political situation, the text consisting of just those three words – “Grant us peace”. Vasks takes long string lines and hangs them out to dry for eons, above which the London Philharmonic Choir – light on tenors – entered section by section. At each repeat, the intensity grew, reaching a spiritual intensity that was moving before a long, slow wind down.