“Women drivers!” is what some male chauvinists of yesteryear used to call out in exasperation, referencing as much their actual existence as their supposed lack of highway skills. Well, two classy female motorists were very much in the driving seat during this concert of extremes given by the Hamburg Philharmonic: Alondra de la Parra and Camille Thomas were making their debuts as conductor and soloist respectively.
The driving itself had begun somewhat cautiously in the first half. Stravinsky was always up for surprises: in 1913 he had already shocked the musical establishment in Paris (including Saint-Saëns) with Le Sacre. Then, seven years later, in one of his famous "backward glances", he served up an example of musical time travel, seeing the 18th century through a 20th-century lens. As ever the best salesman of his own talent, he created a suite from his new ballet Pulcinella (for which Picasso designed the sets and costumes) and revised it twice, in 1949 (the version de la Parra chose to conduct) and 1965.
If you take the fizz out of Stravinsky, you end up with only half a composer. Whether or not the main work had swallowed up so much rehearsal time, there was little exuberance in this performance. Rasping cellos and double basses in the concluding Minuetto-Finale emphasised the astringency of Stravinsky’s reworking of the Baroque originals (falsely attributed to Pergolesi), but there was not much evidence of the commedia dell’arte traditions on which the composer drew. He might have scowled into the camera more often than not during his lifetime, but he was not without an impish sense of fun. Speeds were often on the sleepy side, making the Serenata second movement sound more like a Notturno and the oboe solo recalled Bach rather than any of his contemporaries. Carefully played Stravinsky has little to commend it.
By the time the concerto arrived, the traffic on the road was being negotiated more confidently. The Cello Concerto no.1 by Saint-Saëns may be modest in terms of scale and virtuosity, but it exhibits all the elegance and craftsmanship which one of the greatest of all French tunesmiths could command. Thomas projected her solo line with commitment, never forcing her tone, and displayed a commendable evenness and awareness of classical style which paid homage to the composer Saint-Saëns most admired – Mozart. In the finale, where the thematic material of the first movement is picked up again, the dynamics were often scaled right back, creating a sense of intimacy and a satisfying resolution in the cantilena which leads up to the final bars. Between them, conductor and soloist steered this veteran limousine perfectly. In her generous encore, Jacques Offenbach’s Les larmes de Jacqueline, a piece that Jacqueline du Pré loved to play, the warmth of Thomas’ phrasing was a particular delight.