United Kingdom Weber, Bruch, Beethoven: Hilary Hahn (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.12.2016. (CS)
Weber – Overture, Euryanthe
Bruch – Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 (Eroica)
Columbian Andrés Orozco-Estrada took up his position as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2015 but this was the first time that I had seen him conduct the orchestra. I was impressed by Orozco-Estrada’s impeccable technique, exuberant physical presence and – judging by the assured, deeply engaged responses of the LPO players – strong communication skills. His gestures are unfussy, direct and confident.
The full house at the Royal Festival Hall took a while to settle down. Orozco-Estrada waited for late-comers to reach their seats before launching into a dynamic and colourful reading of the overture to Weber’s 1823 opera, Euryanthe. The conductor created a strong sense of the pulsing dramatic energy of the overture, which does not so much summarise a narrative but give a foretaste of conflicts and characters. The LPO’s playing was melodious and vital; the phrases had a generous sweep while the textures remained clearly defined
Weber employs 4 horns, 3 trombones, 2 trumpets and timpani, and Orozco-Estrada drew warm richness, rather than bombast, from his brass section, crafting full, compelling swells of sound. The strings rushed exuberantly during the horns’ fanfare-like opening establishing the Romantic tone. Subsequently shifts of tempo and mood were deftly handed, as Orozco-Estrada combined emphatic guidance with lightness of spirit. The woodwind lines were finely etched; the strings’ ‘love song’ was expressive but never sentimental. There was also some impressively nimble work from the celli and double basses in the dotted-rhythm passages. Indeed, rhythms were unfailingly taut and, particularly in the climactic fugato episode, Orozco-Estrada conjured enormous animation, throwing his whole body into his direction. In contrast, the ghostly passage for eight solo violins, muted, was eerily magical, the entry of the tremolo violas adding a subtle frisson.
Although it was Der Freischütz that brought Weber overnight success in Germany, many musicians, including Wagner and Schumann, thought Euryanthe a finer work. Orozco-Estrada certainly gave a convincing account of the opera’s overture: it was both theatrical and festive.
The Columbian conductor seemed a little tense as he applauded his players at the close and swiftly departed from the platform; however, his performance of Bruch’s first violin concerto with violinist Hilary Hahn and a slightly reduced-size LPO saw him settle into his groove, assisted no doubt by Hahn’s supremely authoritative demeanour.
This was not a performance which indulged in Romantic schmaltziness or passionate self-indulgence. Hahn’s playing was clean and candid. The astonishing technical impeccability that she exhibited as a prodigious teenager remains – her intonation is pure and true, the tone intense and penetrating, the bowing faultlessly controlled and trenchant.
The woodwind threw dark shadows at the start of the Prelude, from which Hahn’s unaccompanied climb emerged, contemplative but forceful of tone; she projected an impressively forthright sound, even while the vibrato was quite restrained. The orchestra’s sudden surge was a compelling appeal, and Hahn subsequently dominated the dramatic exchanges: her E-string power was particularly striking, while the rises to the heights of the G-string foregrounded strength rather than plushness. Hahn was fully involved in the orchestral passages, listening and leaning in, breathing and swaying in step with the LPO’s tautly crafted episodes. Again I was impressed by the way the basses created propulsion which lifted the lucid textures crafted by Orozco-Estrada. There was, throughout the concerto, much sensitive timpani playing too, from Marney O’Sullivan who had moved from the raised platform at the rear, where his four timpani had been positioned for the Weber overture, to nestle behind the violas and celli.
Hahn’s first movement cadenza was precipitous; she wasn’t interested in dwelling and reflecting. The conductor did well to pick up her unrelenting sweep into the tutti, bringing in the LPO with crispness and precision. He took a little longer to settle into Hahn’s tempo in the Adagio, though, as the violinist seemed determined to press forward. Though the initial phrases of theme were eloquently phrased, with a hint of yearning but no inflated angst, as she urged the music onwards I found Hahn’s playing overly insistent at times during this movement. However, one could not help but be impressed by the conviction and fluency of the violin’s climactic thematic statements.
The Finale started on tenterhooks, and found its way through the orchestra’s tremulous, increasingly expectant Prelude to the violin’s authoritative pronouncement of the double-stopped theme, which Hahn imbued less with gypsy freedom than with classical rigour and certainty. At times she allowed herself some rhythmic freedom but discipline was the prevailing watchword, particularly in the steely accelerando of the closing passage, during which Orozco-Estrada had no problem keeping up with the commanding soloist.
Orozco-Estrada moved from his native Colombia to Vienna in 1997, at the age of 20, to study at the Vienna Music Academy; he subsequently graduated with distinction, conducting the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Musikverein. So, it is perhaps no surprise that he seemed perfectly attuned to both the nobility and dynamism of Weber’s overture – Euryanthe was commissioned by the director of Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater in 1823 and premiered there in October that year – and to the triumphant vigour of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.
The welcoming applause for the returning conductor had scarcely ceased before Orozco-Estrada swept his players breathlessly into the arpeggio theme which opens the Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. There was a lovely easefulness about this movement – it was more of a dance than a rigorous sonata form. The tempo was brisk, the playing lithe, with the double bass pizzicato providing a sure foundation to the fleetly flying motifs above. In the development section, Orozco-Estrada introduced more air into the texture, to allow the harmonic and contrapuntal arguments room to speak. The ensemble in the recapitulation was not always rock steady, with the cellos seeming to press ahead of the horns at times, but the surprising, new hues of the coda were strongly characterised and the trumpets added flashes of brightness at the close of the movement.
The Marcia funebre walked with a soft tread, even a slipperiness at times. The textures were lean and this served to showcase both the focus and shine of the cellos’ melodic statements and the vigorous strength of Beethoven’s counterpoint. Adopting a fairly brisk tempo, Orozco-Estrada used the pungency of the woodwind to emphasise the harmonic twists. Again, the ensemble was not consistently pristine, but if the violins seemed a little hasty in places, then the growing presence of the trumpets and horns was persuasive, and the hard-sticked timpani blows added great drama towards the close.
The strings’ bows in the Scherzo seemed barely to touch the string, bouncing high and vertically in the impulsive pianissimo gallop whose triple-time pulse only gradually defined itself. Orozco-Estrada conjured a racing heartbeat, a life pulse threatening to escalate with potentially devastating results but just about reining in its anarchical imprudence. The spirited Trio had great character; there was much fine playing from the horns, flute and oboe.
Following the reprise of the Scherzo the Finale dashed off with scarcely time for breath. Exciting certainly, but it was a pity that Orozco-Estrada allowed only the slightest of pauses after the initial impetuous orchestral tumble and rise, for it robbed the music of an ironic lightness before the strings’ pizzicato statement of the theme. As the variations unfolded Orozco-Estrada made the familiar sound fresh, and the originality of Beethoven’s invention was supremely evident. The whipping circles of the conductor’s beat during the ‘pounding’ episode were startling but thrilling. However, the uncompromising energy which drove through the first half of the movement was not sustained to the close; after the slower, more dignified variation, the LPO did not quite regain the initial focus or momentum. That said, Orozco-Estrada undoubtedly confirmed the music’s joyfulness and optimism.