On Wednesday evening, the spirit of fin de siècle Russia and Eastern European folk rhythms resonated at the Anvil, Basingstoke. As part of their week-long English cities tour, the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra performed under their Vienna-trained and Colombian-born musical director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Perhaps a better known conductor and orchestra might have secured a packed house for an evening of music by Kodály, Rachmaninov and Dvořák. That said, the three-quarters capacity audience claimed not one, but two encores.

Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra © Peter Rigaud
Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra
© Peter Rigaud

The concert began with Kodály’s vibrant Dances of Galánta, a 1933 work infused with the composer’s childhood memories of gypsy bands and indigenous folk melodies. Orozco-Estrada gave a reading that underscored the music’s ardent lyricism and chutzpah. He also achieved a tight grip over the numerous changes of tempo so typical of the Hungarian gypsy style which Kodály drew on for a work to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. From the opening cello section’s declamation through to the rollicking final dance episode, conductor and players were kindred spirits. Orozco-Estrada’s exhilarating direction, sometimes in the manner of a podium “workout” secured some fine string playing, especially in the helter-skelter syncopation which might have caused a less disciplined string section to come adrift. Woodwind and brass were responsive to their solo opportunities and, despite some overblown tutti moments where they threatened to undermine the balance with the strings, their zest was in keeping with Kodály’s folk inspiration.

It was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor that gave the orchestra an opportunity to perform a big-boned work, but in a more supportive role, with Barry Douglas taking centre stage. His formidable technique and forthright vigour are qualities well suited to Rachmaninov’s student work, first performed in 1892 by the composer at the Moscow Conservatory just three days before his 19th birthday. The opening bravura flourish, with its echoes of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, left us in no doubt of the soloist’s athleticism, heard again to striking effect in the cadenza, a passage marked poco rubato e pesante. But while there is much thickly textured fortissimo here, there are also delicate moments where more elegiac contrast could have been realised. Equally, one might have wished on occasion for a greater sense of reverie, especially in the improvisatory slow movement which drew much expressive support from the Viennese players and a particularly eloquent bassoon solo. If the solo playing was determinedly unsentimental then the richly-scored finale provided further evidence of Douglas’ virtuosity, even if the tempo was more Allegro molto than Allegro vivace.

A work by another Russian formed an unexpected and rewarding encore, “Autumn” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, where Barry Douglas’ flawless musicianship and emotional involvement created a persuasive account and reminded us why this Irishman had won the Gold medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.

The choice of Tchaikovsky may also have served to connect to the post-interval work - Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major. Composed virtually within a single month in 1889, this work, according to the German scholar Hartmut Schick, may have been motivated by a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 that Dvořák had heard the previous year in Prague.

The orchestra shone in this enduringly popular work, fully at home in the waltz-like third movement and in the Adagio, where its bird calls and rustic soundscape were effortlessly caught. Orozco-Estrada’s pacing of the outer movements served the orchestra well, but the music might have benefited from sharper tempo contrasts that, in the finale, at least would have added some extra frisson between the music’s two essential ingredients: pastoral lyricism and unbuttoned joie de vivre.

It was this last quality that was present in spades with the second encore, Josef Strauss’s effervescent Polka schnell, a busman’s holiday for this Viennese orchestra that enabled them to show their true colours and the audience to roar their approval.