Arcana at the Proms – Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic & Andrés Orozco-Estrada – Dvořák & Korngold

Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Dvořák The Noonday Witch Op.108 (1896)
Korngold Violin Concerto (1945)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From The New World’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 4 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

If ever a piece of music could depict the passing of summer, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noonday Witch would make a good choice. Introduced to the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in its year of composition, 1896, it raised the curtain for the second Prom of the season from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

There was charm aplenty in the opening pages of this late work, the mother and young son going about their domestic business with a sense of blissful routine, but as the witch of Karol Jaromir Erben’s folk tale appeared the mood grew decidedly chilly. Strings turned icy, woodwind soured and the brass sounded warning notes, telling us how everything was about to go very wrong indeed. The Viennese would not have been too familiar with this music, but it showed in a good way as Andrés Orozco-Estrada secured an insightful performance, the darker hues of the story coming to the fore with descriptive power.

The sun reappeared from behind the cloud for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, soloist Leonidas Kavakos taking us to the heights. The concerto begins with one of the composer’s top-drawer themes. Full of big screen occasion but tender enough to melt the heart, it reaches for a perfect melodic interval and deliberately falls just short, tugging at the heartstrings. That sense of yearning powers the first movement, in which the orchestra were a smooth partner for the ardent violinist. Kavakos possesses a sumptuous tone, even at quiet dynamics, though on occasion when he reached for the highest notes his tuning was just awry.

The second movement glittered with its Hollywood scoring, beautifully rendered by Orozco-Estrada, while Kavakos effortlessly hit the sweet spot with his part without cloying. The finale crackled with energy in response, the to and fro with the orchestra brilliantly judged and executed, before signing off with aplomb. In a daring encore Kavakos gave us Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s most famous guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, performed with an admirable lack of fuss given the considerable physical challenges behind the scenes. Kavakos really is the swan of the violin, channelling the physicality of his playing into the most natural of styles.

After the interval, a fresh set of clothes for Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no.9, From The New World. It is easy to forget just how many good original tunes this symphony holds, the composer spoilt for choice as he moulds, develops and interweaves them. One of the first symphonies to make such prominent use of the pentatonic scale, it is a continued delight when presented to the audience fresh, and the lightness of touch often experienced here gave room to the melodies themselves.

The Largo was the undisputed highlight. Aided by a wonderful cor anglais solo from Wolfgang Plank, it was slightly faster but still found the time to breathe with its phrasing, pausing where necessary, and in the magical coda allowing the solo strings to come to the fore.

The first movement may have lacked a little drama but Orozco-Estrada was clearly enjoying the interplay between his outstanding wind section and the equally capable strings. Having recorded the piece with an American orchestra, the Houston Symphony, he knows the piece well enough to impose sensible phrasing and an attractive give and take on the tempo.

The third movement Scherzo was feather-light in its outer exchanges before the finale took the performance up a level, its first statements probing deeper and the unexpected discords near the end making themselves known, examples of Dvorak’s underappreciated daring with harmony.

After a rapturous curtain call we were given a Viennese encore in the shape of Josef Strauss’s Ohne Sorgen Polka-Schnell Op.271, where orchestra and audience enjoyed a call and response shout. It was slightly out of place with the concert’s mood but judging by the lasting smiles it left Orozco-Estrada had made the right call once again.

Live review – Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley & LPO / Orozco-Estrada: Dusapin premiere

Viktoria Mullova (violin, below), Matthew Barley (cello, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (above)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 28 November 2018

Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A, Op. 11 No. 1 (1901)
Dusapin At Swim-Two-Birds (LPO co-commission: UK premiere) (2017)
Martinů Symphony No. 4, H305 (1945)
Ravel La Valse (1920)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This centenary year of the establishing of a greater Romanian state (aka the National Day of Romania) brought tonight’s varied programme from the London Philharmonic under Andres Orozco-Estrada, now into his third season as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor.

Enescu‘s First Romanian Rhapsody might have seemed almost too obvious a choice, but this sophisticated piece suffused with the ‘confidence of youth’ is hardly a populist crowd-pleaser, so making Orozco-Estrada’s rather superficial approach the more disappointing. The opening exchanges were prosaic, the ensuing episodes lacking in wit and (to quote Richard Bratby’s note) insouciance and the heady climactic stages rather jog-trotted their way forward without much hint of that deftness and effervescence as can still excite audiences nearly 120 years on.

The first UK hearing of a major work from Pascal Dusapin is never to be passed over, with At Swim-Two-Birds continuing the series of concertante pieces running through his creative maturity. The title is that of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 novel, which considers Irish culture from a decidedly post-Joycean perspective, but Dusapin’s concerto hardly reflects this beyond its being a double concerto in two movements – both interweaving incisive passages with those that float suspended above their recurring key-notes. Viktoria Mullova (above) and Matthew Barley (below) were fully responsive to their solo and duet writing, whether in the intricate dialogue of the first movement or emerging cadenza-like writing of its successor; during which Dusapin’s predilection for ricocheting percussion and translucent textures came enticingly to the fore.

Such qualities are no less central, albeit put to very different ends, in the Fourth Symphony that Martinů wrote towards the end of the Second World War – when a victorious outcome could openly be expressed. The result is its composer’s most affirmative such piece, though there are many instances of ambivalence and Orozco-Estrada was attentive to such as those moments of stasis in the first movement’s subtly curtailed sonata design, offbeat accents that impede forward motion in the scherzo (its folk-tinged trio enchantingly evoking Dvorak), or sudden and teasing shifts in perspective which rein-in the emotional fervency of the Lento. The finale, too, has glimpses of doubt but Orozco-Estrada marshalled momentum unerringly through to a peroration that caps what should now be a repertoire work in outright jubilation.

An impressive reading, then, which found the partnership between orchestra and conductor at its finest. After this, was La Valse (or anything else for that matter) really necessary? Not that this performance was without its merits, Orozco-Estrada mindful to avoid letting an endlessly fascinating and always unnerving work descend to the level of mindless showpiece, but the music’s reserves of irony and violence sounded merely hectoring when heard in this context. That said, the visceral close was finely navigated by an LPO intent on projecting every bar.

This enterprising and often exhilarating concert was enthusiastically received by all those present. Hopefully Orozco-Estrada will tackle further Enescu and Martinu in future, while a too little known piece as Prokofiev’s Russian Overture fairly cries out for his advocacy.