Pablo Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia in a Stupendous Performance of The Firebird

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Falla, Stravinsky:  Javier Perianes (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.3.2017. (RB)

RavelAlborado del gracioso

FallaNoches en los jardines de España

StravinskyThe Firebird

All three works on the programme for this concert were composed in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  Spanish conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, joined forces with his fellow Spaniard, pianist Javier Perianes to give us the sights, sounds and colours of their homeland in the first half. The second half provided an opportunity to hear Stravinsky’s full ballet score of The Firebird dating from 1910.

Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso (The Jester’s Morning Song) began life as one of the movements in his piano suite Miroirs.  The work is famous for its rapid-fire repeated notes and brilliant glissandi and has a distinct Spanish flavour with its Galician rhythms and evocation of guitars and castanets.  Ravel wrote the orchestral version in 1918 and it received a rip-roaring performance from Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia.  Soft vibrant pizzicato strings set the piece in motion before conductor and orchestra gave us an explosion of colour in the first tutti section.  Some of the repeated notes from the horns were a little untidy but this was a minor issue.  Bassoonist Tod Gibson-Cornish produced some soulful Spanish melodies against gentle mocking flourishes from the Philharmonia in the slow central section.  Clicking castanets energised the proceedings for one final adrenaline rush and the Philharmonia rose to the occasion magnificently.  Gleaming glissandi in the violins and woodwind, tight and brilliantly controlled spiccatos on the cellos and dazzling repeated notes on the trumpets ratcheted up the tension before Heras-Casado brought the curtain down on this great crowd pleaser.

Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain) was written for the brilliant Catalan pianist, Ricardo Viñes.  Viñes premiered a number of important works by Falla, Albeniz, Debussy and Ravel, including the piano version of Miroirs and there are recordings of him on Youtube performing works by Debussy and Falla.  The three movements of Noches en los jardines de España draw on literary and pictorial associations to depict Andalucian landscapes.  Javier Perianes has recorded the work with Josep Pons and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and he is a leading exponent of Falla’s piano music.

Heras-Casado did a wonderful job evoking the sultry, mysterious atmosphere of the summer gardens of the Alhambra Palace in the opening movement.  Perianes produced crystalline impressionistic sonorities in his initial entry and he and the Philharmonia collaborated tightly through the many shifts of mood and tempo.  Perianes moved seamlessly from charged dance-like textures to heady rhapsodic romanticism while the exchanges with solo violin and cello had a chamber music intimacy.  However, there was a balance issue in the climactic coda:  it contains quite a lot of notes for the pianist but I did not hear them on this occasion as Perianes was drowned out by his orchestral partners.  The second movement depicts a folk dance which takes place in the distance.  Heras-Casado coaxed gorgeous, beautifully shaped lines from the woodwind against a background of murmuring strings in the introductory section.  Perianes produced a glittering array of textures and contrasting sonorities and I enjoyed the playful rhythmic vibrancy he brought to the dancing Spanish rhythms.  In the third movement we move to the gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba and here I loved Perianes’ artful shaping of Falla’s piano figurations and his subtle and effective use of rubato.  Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia captured the slow burn poetry of the coda brilliantly before the piece ended ‘not with a bang but a whimper’.  Great playing from Perianes who returned to the stage one final time to perform Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance as an encore.

I was pleased to see Heras-Casado performing the complete ballet score for The Firebird rather than one of the suites.  This work is one of the most ground-breaking and highly original pieces to emerge from the first half of the twentieth century.  Stravinsky drew on his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov’s gift for imaginative orchestration and there are many striking and memorable effects in the score. Stravinsky’s achievement is all the more remarkable given the way he worked so seamlessly with Diaghilev and Fokine to achieve an extraordinary fusion of music, dance and drama.

Heras-Casado was in his element with The Firebird and it was clear he had been working hard with the Philharmonia to conjure up the myriad original sonorities in Stravinsky’s score.  The big set piece numbers were all terrific and Stravinsky’s imaginative orchestral effects including the trombone and string glissandi were brilliantly executed.  Heras-Casado’s pacing of the movements was superb and he used his arms and body very effectively to convey the textures and rhythms that he wanted from his orchestral partners.  The drama and fairy tale magic of the music were brought thrillingly to life with lower strings and trombones bringing us face to face with the demonic Kashchey. Elsewhere upper woodwind flutterings and pizzicato strings summoned up the enchanted Firebird of the title.  The princesses’ game was dispatched with feathery lightness by the strings while offstage trumpets ratcheted up the dramatic tension in the daybreak scene.  Though the narrative and linking sections were scrupulously executed I wondered if Heras-Casado might have done more to sustain the dramatic tension but I appreciate this is difficult particularly in a concert performance.  The build up to Kashchey’s Infernal Dance was absolutely electrifying and the dance itself was a virtuoso tour de force and one of the most exciting performances I have ever heard in the concert hall.  The lullaby provided a soothing balm after the firestorm while resplendent brass euphoniously chimed a general thanksgiving for the delivery from evil.

These were great performances all round and bravo to Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia for giving us such a stupendous performance of The Firebird.

Robert Beattie   

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