Rafael Payare’s Flamboyant Approach Fails to Communicate Musical Drama

United KingdomUnited Kingdom R. Strauss, Mozart: Alban Gerhardt (cello), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Rafael Payare (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 27.3.2018. (CS)

Rafael Payare (c) Henry Fair
Rafael Payare (c) Henry Fair

R. StraussDon Juan Op.20
Mozart – Symphony No.35 in D major K.385, ‘Haffner’
R. StraussDon Quixote Op.35

Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare brings dance and drama to the podium.  His gestures are large, his arms held up high and out far: at times, when he vigorously flicks a down-beat or cue, his baton begins its journey pointing to the floor behind him – a sort of conductor’s back-swing – and flashes like lightning.  Sashaying from left to right, he bends his lead knee gracefully, his extended leg balancing lightly on tiptoe.

Payare is a graduate of the celebrated El Sistema in Venezuela and worked alongside Gustavo Dudamel with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, of which he was also principal horn.  He is currently Music Director of the Ulster Orchestra and last month it was announced that he will become Music Director of the San Diego Symphony in 2019.  A slight, elegant figure, dapperly dressed, at the Royal Festival Hall Payare conducted with confidence and fluency, giving eminently clear direction to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as they journeyed through music by Mozart and Strauss.  But, despite his dynamism on the platform, the conductor did not consistently find and communicate the music’s inherent drama.

This was most noticeable in the one work without its own ‘narrative programme’, Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, which began its life as a serenade to celebrate the ennoblement of the composer’s childhood friend, Sigmund Haffner, in 1782.  Payare, conducting from memory, certainly had the measure of the music’s majestic assurance, as conveyed by the two-octave leaps of the Allegro con spirito’s opening rhetoric, and the unison of the reduced-size RPO was pointedly articulated and perfectly tuned.  But, when the rhythmic momentum took off after the mock-introductory grandeur, Payare’s gestures seemed almost too large: despite the scale and ambition which drive the movement’s leaping octaves and rhythmic assertions, there is wit and grace too, and while the RPO played with technical assurance, the chamber-style conversations which unfold as the motifs develop didn’t make their presence felt.

Payare brought the soothing woodwind melodies together with relaxing coherence in the Andante, and there was a pleasing continuity of texture and form.  The Menuetto was generally light-footed and joyful of spirit, but greater dynamic contrasts would have highlighted the significance of musical details and brought the movement’s arguments to the fore.  The Presto launched at breakneck speed: Payare was obviously taking Mozart, who suggested the movement should be played ‘as fast as possible’, at his word.  There was an exciting, quasi-operatic energy but even here while there were some effective dynamic contrasts and nifty string scurrying, Payare allowed things to sag at times and didn’t sustain the forward momentum that he had established so blazingly at the start.

The concert had begun, too, with a brilliant blaze of sound, the tutti RPO relishing the buoyant ascent which kicks off Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, as the hero boldly and brazenly leaps before our eyes.  In this characteristically innovative and ambitious tone poem, the twenty-five-year-old Strauss set out to dazzle, and the RPO seemed determined to match him for panache.  Some of the heroic musical gestures rang with an almost explosive egoism – the double basses thwacking their pizzicato as if trying to outdo the timpani’s bravura.  The enlarged string sections produced a thrilling sheen and the first fiddles and cellos had no difficulty negotiating the challenging passages at the extremes of their range.  The terrific breath control and comforting warm tone of the four horns was notable too, as was the oboe’s beautifully seductive romantic song.  Payare seemed less interested, though, in drawing out the moments of delicacy which provide an emotional counterpoint to the hero’s bragging and bombast: the unalleviated dynamic pressure made it hard for moments such as leader Duncan Riddell’s solo portrayal of Juan’s first love, or the tender harp arpeggios which suggest genuine beguilement, to make their mark.  Though the transitions between the episodes were fluent and the details of the score duly observed, the contrasts – the emotional light and shade of the music – were neglected.  We were presented with a series of virtuosic tone-pictures, but not truly drawn into an unfolding story.

I had hoped that the arrival of cellist Alban Gerhardt – whose ‘introspective, tender and haunting’ performance of Dvořák’s Concerto at the Proms in 2016 I so admired – might inject some deeper musical insight into the musical account of another Don’s exploits.  And, indeed, Gerhardt – who recorded Don Quixote on the Hyperion label in 2013 – brought considerable poetry to the proceedings and tried hard to establish the sort of chamber music conversations that had been absent in the Mozart symphony.  Gerhardt’s Quixote was, by turn, boastful and befuddled; he soared with panache in the gorgeous outpourings and fully inhabited the rhythmic flexibility of the hero’s lines, but he was equally captivating when the cello sang a more poignant, melancholic strain.  Whether thrown off his horse or out of a boat, this Don took his tumbles gracefully.  After a gloriously sunny and impassioned final solo, the introspection of the close with its doleful, even unnerving, cello descent was deeply eloquent.

The solo cellist does not have the lion’s share of the work, though.  Sub-titled ‘Fantastic Variations for Large Orchestra on a Theme of Knightly Character’, it’s not a concerto and the RPO made the most of the brilliance of Strauss’s orchestration: the brass bleated balefully, convincing the Don that a threatening army was approaching; the oboe dulcetly sang of the old Knight’s passionate bewitchment by the enchantress Dulcinea.

In fact, the symphonic poem features two solo characters, with the cellist’s Don Quixote partnered by his sidekick Sancho Panza as brought to life by the solo viola – here played with exquisite presence by section principal Abigail Fenna.  Fenna was inexplicably not credited in the programme though, during the final applause, Gerhardt showed great concern that she should receive her due acclaim for contributing to such a vivid account of the relationship between the hapless pair of Spaniards, particularly in Variation 8’s wry and rueful emergence after they’ve been ejected from their ‘Enchanted Boat’.

So, there was colour and panache, but however sharply the trickling water (tight pizzicato from the violins) and creaking windmill blades (col legno cellos) are sketched, such details don’t guarantee a coherent overall picture, and I didn’t feel that Payare had fully considered how to assimilate the various parts into an over-riding vision of the whole.  Like the Don’s deluded dreaming, this Don Quixote had moments of imaginative richness and thrilling adventure, but no clear drive or direction.

Claire Seymour

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