Successful programme planning is akin to designing an ideal meal: no matter what the individual ingredients are, there should be something savoury, something sweet and preferably a palate-cleanser. Conductors and chefs alike, if the delivery matches the substance there should then follow an artistic and gastronomic triumph.

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

If earlier in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s ongoing exploration of Stravinsky’s diverse journey in music the emphasis had been on immediate formative influences from his Russian homeland, here in this poorly attended concert conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada we were taken even further back in time to neo-classical models from the Baroque period. In Apollon musagète Stravinsky contented himself with only three – instead of the original nine – muses in a ballet commission requiring a mere six dancers. As if to underline the economy of means and gesture, the work is scored for just 34 strings. The composer himself saw in it the purity of “white ballet”, shorn of “many-coloured effects and of all superfluities”. When Diaghilev first heard it, he commented that the piece had greater clarity than anything Stravinsky had so far done and that it was “somehow music not of this world, but from somewhere else”.

With the exception of the “Pas de deux” for Apollo and Terpsichore, the tinta of the LPO strings seemed much closer to the rugged earthiness of the bigger ballets than to the crystalline quality the composer had in mind. To be sure this was a sunny, warm, expansive and at times almost languorous reading, powerfully underpinned by the lower strings. It was also not without touches of romanticization: even the pizzicati and the repeated “pings” were well-rounded and sonorous. Yet the spiciness that was so often part of Stravinsky’s culinary magic at this stage of his career was missing: this dish could have done with more than a dash of Worcester Sauce. Right at the end of the “Apotheosis”, when the music steals away in a mood of icy sadness, the beauty of this quiet ending was spoiled by premature applause.

Paired with this neo-classical ballet from the late 1920s was a contemporaneous work. Many composers have written pieces that are in effect display vehicles for a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment but yet do not sail under the name of a concerto (Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy or Kol Nidrei, for instance), and not all concertos follow the traditional three-movement layout. There are few works, however, where solo instrument and orchestra are so evenly matched, as in the case of Stravinsky’s Capriccio. This was noted by the poet Ezra Pound in his review of a 1934 performance in Venice, where piano and orchestra were described “as two shells of a walnut”. How fortunate it was to have Peter Donohoe as soloist in a performance which did full justice to the Italian origin of the word (literally, head with the hair standing on end), generating fizz and fun in well-coordinated leaps and bounds, not least in the perpetuum mobile quality of the finale where the high spirits and yah-boo elements produced infectious ripples that went through the ranks of the LPO players. In his encore Donohoe extended the capricious mood still further with the deliciously pointed syncopations of Stravinsky’s Tango.

Before the interval Donohoe had given a sparkling account of Weber’s Konzertstück, in which the piano takes centre-stage throughout with many unaccompanied passages full of bravura and thematic interest. In its ruminative qualities it is a clear precursor of Schumann’s concerto, and its Romantic excesses were captured in great style by Donohoe who produced whirling torrents of razor-sharp notes right at the end.

Tempo relationships matter in all symphonies. Listening to Orozco-Estrada in Schubert’s Third Symphony I was reminded of the problems that some conductors encounter in Brahms’s F major symphony when each movement is treated as an Andante. Here the default setting was excessive briskness. Schubert was only eighteen when he wrote this jewel of a piece (so often neglected today) and the vitality of youth was suitably encompassed by Orozco-Estrada, plainly audible in the well-sprung rhythms and bright-edged textures. But this supreme composer of songs knew what he was doing. I can forgive an absence of Viennese lilt but not the breathlessness (notwithstanding the thrilling tarantella-style finale) of many of the lyrical episodes, especially for woodwind soloists. The second movement – despite its Allegretto marking – is really a kind of minuet and there should have been a tempo contrast in the trio section. Similarly, the third movement (in style a scherzo) had insufficient variations in speed and dynamics.

***11