Richard Strauss is unique among composers in finding inspiration in the exploits of two literary Spanish noblemen, and it was entirely appropriate that in this concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra these musical Dons should have been conducted by a Venezuelan señor. Both tone poems have to some extent characteristics in common – the eponymous figures can be seen as pure fantasists – and both end quietly with the demise of their respective heroes.

Rafael Payare © Askonas Holt
Rafael Payare
© Askonas Holt

If you offer an audience two works in which rich orchestration is the name of the game, you will need something by way of a contrast. Mozart and Strauss make good stablemates in concert, not least because for all his occasional bombast the later composer also had a perfect command of the lyrical grace and chamber-like delicacy which the lad from Salzburg had at his fingertips.

Making his debut with the RPO Rafael Payare chose a relatively small ensemble for the “Haffner” symphony, and in the opening Allegro the playing was both stylish and con spirito (as indicated in the score), yet here and in the following movements the sound was very much string-led. The wind, brass and timpani (with the exception of the finale) were kept firmly in check, so that the minuet was somewhat starved of its panoply of grandeur, as was the case in the final movement where the most regal of keys (and D major is all about triumph and rejoicing) needed a more resplendent touch. That said, it was in many respects a traditional reading which would not have been out of place a half-century ago. Indeed, Karajan gave a remarkably similar account in this very hall back in the 1950s, with the serenade-like character of much of the string writing clearly to the fore.

Payare is obviously at home in Strauss, and in these two Dons there was plenty to admire, both in the playing of the RPO and in the confident conducting of complex scores. Would Don Juan be able to get away with his “crimes” today? If he wasn’t booked for sexual harassment (and worse!), a lengthy spell in a rehab centre would surely be considered necessary to bring this specimen of testosterone-fuelled machismo and irrepressible self-belief back to the real world which the rest of us inhabit. This Don Juan was light on its feet, powering through the faster and louder passages without any excess baggage, but also alive to the seductive potential of the softer and slower passages. Payare picked out without any undue spotlighting those instances of orchestral colour which stick in the memory and caused contemporary audiences to marvel at a 24-year-old’s ability to create a stir in the musical world, like the cachinnating chromatics in the woodwind as this particular Don goes to a masked ball, or the wonderful little shivers from the strings after his death by Don Pedro’s sword, all here delivered with a deft sense of purpose.

If Don Juan was a fantasist who believed every female being on earth would yield to his charm, Don Quixote was a crazed madman who tilted at windmills in the hope of righting all the wrongs in the world. But the contradictions in his character – both the blinkered idealism and the worldly-wise sarcasm – undoubtedly appealed to Strauss, and indeed the music reflects in its mercurial qualities the constant mood shifts of the principal character. Payare and his orchestra offered much to savour, from the dream-like languor of the orchestral introduction, with its creamy clarinet and oboe contributions plus violin, trumpet and trombone solos, the throaty baa-baaing of the secure brass in “The Battle with the Sheep” right through to the powerful response of the entire RPO in “The Joust with the Knight of the White Moon”. This richness was matched in the warm and flexible playing of Alban Gerhardt, from the “doleful countenance” of his first appearance to the final moments of the solo cello line which, after a welling-up of defiance, sinks back into a state of mortal resignation, as the instrument moves exquisitely from its highest to deepest register. Beautifully paired with Gerhardt was the dark-hued viola of Abigail Fenna (unaccountably not credited in the programme) as Sancho Panza.

Payare is an athletic and balletic presence on the podium, and every fibre in his body seems to signal style and musicianship. Serious in demeanour yet with Latin intensity, he reminds me of the young Giuseppe Sinopoli, under whom he cut his musical teeth playing in the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. The RPO is currently looking for a new principal conductor. Payare, having already made a clutch of auspicious debuts with other leading orchestras, should definitely be on the shortlist.