United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, James Horner and Rimsky-Korsakov: David Pyatt (horn), John Ryan (horn), James Thatcher (horn), Richard Watkins (horn), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaime Martín (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 28.3.2015 (AS)
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet (Fantasy Overture)
James Horner: Collage: A Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op.35
Since recently taking on the role of conductor after a successful career as a flautist, the Spanish musician Jaime Martín, now in his fiftieth year, has made rapid progress in his new profession, and is attracting engagements from international orchestras and opera houses. On the evidence of this concert it is easy to see why his ascent has been so rapid. His baton technique and his beat are perfectly clear, and he is able to obtain very sharp ensemble when this is needed; but he often resorts to moulding and guiding the music with his hands in a most unusually expressive fashion. He is clearly a very gifted communicator, and the LPO responded to his direction with great energy and seemingly with great enthusiasm. At times the quality of playing was almost unbelievably high, even for those listeners who are used to the exalted standards often achieved by this outstanding body of players.
Tchaikovsky’s great tone poem on the subject of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tragedy was projected with unusual clarity, both tonally and in terms of the structure of the piece. As a result, the work’s disparate elements of violence and love seemed more sharply defined than in less insightful performances. Within the satisfying overall framework there were not only passages of furious yet controlled energy, but in the quieter episodes the conductor allowed the music to breathe with great elegance and expression.
Similar qualities were also heard in Rimsky-Korsakov’s four-part symphonic poem. Sometimes this undoubtedly distinguished work can easily lapse into dullness under workaday conductors, only coming to life in the self-generating excitement of the last movement’s violent seascape. But not on this occasion, for at every point in the score Martín attended acutely to the needs of the music, whether it was a question of keeping rhythms buoyant or shaping melodic material in such a way that its expressive qualities were realised to the full. In the work’s many solo passages the LPO’s section principals seemed to have all the time in the world to demonstrate their formidable poetic artistry under the conductor’s sympathetic baton. It was a most memorable performance.
In between the Tchaikovsky and Rimsky works the world premiere of James Horner’s Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra took place. As a renowned film composer Horner certainly knows how to manage a solo horn quartet effectively and to score skilfully for a large orchestral body, which here included two pianos, a celesta, xylophone and other percussion devices. The actual sounds of the orchestral palette in this work were usually attractive and often intriguingly piquant. But after a while the lack of rhythmic variety in this single-movement concerto became apparent: everything flowed by at a steady medium-slow pace, and the quality of musical invention was not very inspired. It sounded like decent film music, but without any visual aspect to stimulate the imagination, so that the mind’s eye instead created its own image of rocky vistas and rolling plains. All four soloists played with much skill and seemingly without any flaws. The programme note discussed the work’s spatial element, with the horns placed at various points on the “stage”, but minds had clearly been changed, since the soloists were in fact grouped in pairs on either side of the conductor at the front of the platform.