Juanjo Mena conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Stravinsky’s riot-provoking The Rite of Spring, alongside Ravel’s jazz-infused Piano Concerto for the left hand, with spring-themed works by Debussy and Delius, made for an intriguing programme, and one that delivered an evening of striking contrasts. The LPO began their festival, Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey earlier this month, and the series presents Stravinsky in the context of music he influenced (although given his significance for 20th music and beyond, the field is pretty wide) and that might have influenced him.

Benedetto Lupo © Carlo Cofano
Benedetto Lupo
© Carlo Cofano

The opener tonight was Debussy’s short, two-movement orchestral work, Printemps – perhaps a stretch for the composer to call it a “Symphonic Suite”, but it is nonetheless a pleasing evocation of spring, inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera. It began life as a work for piano duet, orchestra and wordless chorus in 1887, but Debussy authorised Henri Büsser to re-orchestrate it under the composer’s close watch, which he duly did in 1912, this time dropping the wordless chorus. The piano duet opens proceedings with the flute, and on the whole the orchestration is sensitive and warm, with gossamer strings at the start, and sparse use of muted trumpets, with a Children’s Corner-esque march and lively concluding climax. Mena presented a skilful and atmospheric reading, although whether the fault of the orchestration of the acoustic, the piano duet rarely cut through the orchestral texture, and was in fact inaudible in places, which was a pity. Nevertheless, the final “burst of joy” (in Debussy’s words), with Mena almost leaping off the podium, made for a great start to the evening.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the left hand, the most well-known and oft-performed of a number of works for the left hand commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, was composed nearly twenty years after The Rite of Spring. From the opening rumbling double basses and contrabassoon, Ravel sets the scene with a rising swell up through the ranks of the strings heralding the arrival of full brass, and preparing the way for the piano’s dramatic entry. Pianist Benedetto Lupo’s opening statement was energetically emphatic yet heavily pedalled, and throughout he balanced the virtuosic challenges, covering the full extent of the keyboard with Ravel’s skilfully lyrical writing for the piano. The offbeat rhythmic orchestral accents in the march-like section gave us a hint of The Rite of Spring’s heavy rhythms to come later in the evening, as did the impressive command of the bassoonist (Jonathan Davies) in the extended blues-infused solo passage. Lupo’s combination of power and control was highly impressive. In the final cadenza, Ravel demands smooth lyricism, combining the central section’s bluesy theme with rippling accompaniment – an extreme challenge for the one hand, and one which Lupo made seem effortlessly natural, making this the stand out performance of the evening.

Delius’ short Idylle de Printemps is an early work, although it lay unperformed until the 1990s. It is a sweet enough Romantic miniature, with simple, rustic string writing and an enchanting flute/oboe conversation towards the close, but there is little of overall note here, with rather bitty, episodic writing leading to a rather half-hearted climax. Mena gave us a warm reading, although coming before the Stravinsky, there was rather a sense of this being a bit of a space filler.

So to the finale – Stravinsky’s wild and visceral The Rite of Spring. Well this was certainly a fine performance, full of bite, control and pinpoint accuracy. But was it truly wild? It certainly had its moments, Mena contorting and twisting to the complex rhythms in the final “Sacrificial Dance”, the raised horns and full orchestral power alternating full-on violence with dark menace. Yet this sense of abandon was a long time coming. Once again, bassoonist Jonathan Davies shone with a keening yet darkly sensuous opening solo, but otherwise Part One was a rather controlled affair, and the stamping chords of “The Augurs of Spring” dance, whilst accurate, lacked total conviction. It was only in the final moments of Part One when Mena let rip with the “Dance of the Earth”. Part Two’s nightmarish opening section, with its glassy violin solo and angular viola duet, was dark and foreboding, and after a slight lull in the momentum in the “Evocation of the Ancestors” the build to the final dance had relentless drive and rhythm. When the stays are loosened, Mena is a joy to watch, and the final abrupt ending was truly exciting.

So great programming and strong performances all round, with stunning Ravel from Lupo, and a Rite of Spring with power, excitement and moments of wildness, but which left me wanting more of a whiff of riot than we were given.

****1