The LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada finished his week with the LPO with a behemoth of a programme which prefaced Shostakovich’s monstrous “Leningrad” Symphony with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. This fascinating exploration of heroism managed to avoid the obvious trap of making the Beethoven feel anaemic without any compromise in the brutality of the “Leningrad”.

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

Choosing to programme anything at all alongside Shostakovich’s eighty-minute seventh symphony is bold enough, but to choose Beethoven’s grandest concerto was uncommonly brave. The string sections each shed a couple of desks of players for the concerto, and the exceptional willingness of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan to play as a member of the orchestra almost as much as a virtuosic soloist gave the performance a pleasing sense of intimacy. While his cadenzas and showier solo passages displayed all the bravura one could hope for, his best moments came in the softer ebb and flow of the slow movement, where he projected a softly singing top line while weaving in and out of the woodwind principals’ texture with complete ease. Much of the success of this chamber music must have come from Barnatan directing his gaze around the orchestra during all but the most intricate moments. The woodwinds, in return, played with exceptional beauty of intonation and phrasing.

The outer movements, by contrast, were vigorously muscular and almost Brahmsian in outlook. The first movement’s march passages were explosively martial and the finale was a whirling, indefatigable dance which had several members of the orchestra tapping along on their knees.

In Orozco-Estrada’s hands, Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony was a particularly grim affair, in which the darkness between floor-shaking outbursts was painfully bleak. Tempi were on the whole brisk, but the spaciousness given to the quieter, desolate moments was memorably striking. After an opening few minutes, which were more bucolic than suggestive of some bustling metropolis, the central side drummer of three rolled up his sleeves and set off at a brisk, unwavering pace. The first couple of paragraphs of the great march saw the strings threaten to charge ahead with their pianissimo pizzicato lines before steadying the ship once the dynamics reached a mere piano. The inexorable ascent of the march saw the addition of two further side drum comrades as the music swelled into a near-unbearable peak of tension, the low brass spitting out their notes with vicious attack and the woodwinds indulging in every dissonance. Jonathan Davies’ ensuing bassoon solo was distressingly distraught, and the glowing warmth of the movement’s opening theme in the strings brought a tremendous sense of relief to the air. After the movement, an extended pause with much unhushed audience chatter seemed somehow completely natural, such was the relief of tension.

The two inner movements fully indulged the dark introspection which defined this performance. There was a strong sense of muted tension among the clipped string and wind passages, periodically allowing some wonderful solos to shine through, notably from Eb clarinet (Thomas Watmough) in the second movement and principal flute (Juliette Bausor) in the third. The third movement’s rollicking central passage was a breathless, wild diversion, before the music dissolved back into the darkness to wait with near palpable suspense for the finale. When it came, the fourth movement was similarly thrilling, driven forwards by tripled side drum and vigorous timpani interventions. The brass section, massed in the corner of stage left with the lower end of the horns stretched out behind the woodwinds, played superbly well as a unit, meticulously balanced and brightly coloured. The strings were similarly excellent, playing with gusto to the very back desk and attacking Bartók pizzicati with violence. The low strings brought a rather sinister edge to the dotted ostinato figure which preceded a spectacular ascent into the symphony’s final pages. This was a memorable concert for its broad scope as much as its shattering climaxes, and all present will look forward to its planned release on disc.