A confident debut with the LSO for Karina Canellakis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom R. Strauss, Ravel: Cédric Tiberghien (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 8.3.2020. (CS)

Karina Canellakis (c) Mathias Bothor

R. StraussDie Frau ohne Schatten (Symphonic Fantasy); Death and Transfiguration Op.24
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major; La valse

At the start of the 2019-20 season, American conductor Karina Canellakis took up two new appointments, as Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin.  The season also sees her make debuts with a host of orchestras in the US – the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and Minnesota Symphony – and in Europe, including the Munich Philharmonic, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra and, here at the Barbican Centre, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Canellakis is no stranger to the UK, having made a strong impression at the Proms in 2018, followed by an acclaimed First Night performance in 2019.  For her first performance with the LSO she chose Richard Strauss and Ravel, the orchestral headiness of the former complemented by the softer perfumes of the Frenchman: luscious luxury balanced by ravishing refinement.  This was meaty fare for the LSO, and an opportunity for Canellakis to demonstrate her clear-sighted vision and technical command.

The Symphonic Fantasy which Strauss drew, at the end of his life, from Die Frau ohne Schatten – to gain a wider audience for a ‘tricky’ opera and make a few quick post-WW2 bucks – was a surprising choice, though.  It’s not Strauss’s ‘best’ opera, and the composer didn’t necessarily select the ‘best bits’ when comprising his Fantasy.  It’s also more ‘fantasy’ than ‘symphony’, and as such requires careful shaping and negotiating in order for the individual colours and characters to emerge from the dense orchestral tapestry.  Canellakis conducted with a confident sweep, getting things underway with a muscular elbow-flick which triggered a mighty bellow from the spirit god Keikobad which seemed to explode from the belly of the LSO.

But, she didn’t always anticipate the need to balance the wind and brass in the bright acoustic of the Barbican Hall.  At times, the full blast of the massed ensemble was a bit overwhelming, especially in the latter sections when Strauss piles on the musical sugar and cream.  There were moments of real discernment, though, most particularly in the strings’ tender depiction of the good Dyer Barak, and the initial fantastical visions of his wife which were beautifully conjured by clarinet, harp and horn.  Trombonist Simon Johnson was a reassuring, genial and persuasively ‘human’ voice in Barak’s ‘aria’.

Strauss’s tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, opened the second half of the concert.  Now, here was a truly touching fragility and a magical transparency, as the muted strings’ syncopated breathing and the timpani’s pulse, faltering but still throbbing with life, was juxtaposed with the glistening harp and woodwind memories, the latter already seeming like airy dreams.  Canellakis made the sharp shift to the agitations of the Allegro, as the struggle with death commences, both shocking and inevitable.  A wistful flute solo contrasted with exuberant strings, as Canellakis exploited the full range of Strauss’s palette.  Much of the impact of this tone poem depends on the composer’s ability to control the slow burn towards the titanic climax, and Canellakis certainly finely calibrated the tension notch-ups, which were unhurried but inexorable.

There was a quiet intensity at the close of Death and Transfiguration which made me feel that the order of the post-interval items should have been reversed.  What can follow spiritual transmutation?  Well, here it was Ravel’s La Valse – all edgy lilt, restless tempi, sharply defined woodwind and luscious strings.  But, Canellakis seemed to work far too hard: the LSO – boosted by a percussion-plus army – would surely have played Ravel’s dance with just as much confidence and charm without the windmill-like revolves and athletic shoulder thrusts that Canellakis executed.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major was the concert’s calm centre, the discerning serenity led by soloist Cédric Tiberghien who played with pristine elegance and artless sophistication.  Tiberghien looked a little startled by the LSO’s whip-crack fired fury at the start of the Allegramente but this did not unsettle his crab-wriggling hand-crossings or slippery thumb-slides, which exuded relaxed charm.  A sense of invention, not restlessness, infused this opening movement, as orientalism fused with jazz – both underpinned by classical grace – and in which the concertante aspect was emphasised by stunning harp, trumpet and horn solos, and by Tiberghien’s own electric engagement with his orchestral partners.  Cool understatement characterised the piano’s long solo at the start of the Adagio assai, with the melody shining from within the lilting accompaniment rather than ‘sitting on top’.   Tiberghien created a thrilling tension between regularity and freedom of rhythm, and it is to Canellakis’s credit that she trod a sure and steady path, leading the LSO with focus and confidence.  The Presto was a combination of fairground, fairy-tale and fiesta, full of verve and excitement.

Tiberghien was clearly delighted at the close and invited the LSO leader, Carmine Lauri, to join him in an encore: an arrangement of Debussy’s The Golliwog’s Cakewalk.  Not the most idiomatic writing for the fiddle, perhaps, but Lauri despatched the bouncing bravura up-bows with panache.

Claire Seymour

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