Exceptional LPO concert with the world premiere of a fragrant López Bellido concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adams, López Bellido, Richard Strauss: Javier Perianes (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Jonathan Berman (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.2.2022. (MBr)

Javier Perianes © IGOR STUDIO

Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Jimmy López Bellido – Ephemerae: Concerto for piano and orchestra (world premiere)
R. Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

This was the first of two concerts which was due to have been conducted by the Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä. He would end up withdrawing from both of them due to illness, but the LPO would come up with two replacements – and both would end up giving exceptionally good concerts.

The British conductor Jonathan Berman took over the first of the concerts. The more challenging of the two, since it included the world premiere of Jimmy López Bellido’s Ephemerae, it also, unfortunately, would mean Kaija Saariaho’s Asteroid 4179: Toutais would fall off the programme.

This concert very much played to Berman’s strengths – contemporary and twentieth-century music, partly gained from being mentored by Oliver Knussen, but also by regular work with orchestras such as the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Contemporary Music Group and New European Ensemble.

The major work here – and what a work it is – was López Bellido’s Ephemerae. A half-hour or so concerto for piano and orchestra, that description of it is rather misleading. Listening to it I wondered if concerto for piano, timpani and orchestra might have been a better one. The concerto is inspired by fragrance – the entire spectrum of the perfumes, from the most floral and fruity at one extreme to those dusky, powerfully sensuous earthy ones at the other. And yet, for something which is inspired from a world so gentle as scent, with something that seems untouchable and ethereal, what López Bellido has come up with often sounds entirely the opposite. This concerto is nothing less than high octane, driven by powerful, often mighty, writing that is entirely contrary to the concept of something ephemeral.

‘Bloom’, the first movement and as its name might suggest, is evocative of the first of the seasons and the piano is thrillingly drawn into a world of fresh, vibrant colours. It’s zingy – in its dual sense; both for the zealousness of the skilfully scored drama, and that crisp scent you get after immediately scraping back the rind from citrus fruit. The colours are sharp, effervescent. ‘Primal Forest’, the second movement, is darker, muskier but no less evocative. López Bellido points out in his notes to the work how important Javier Perianes, the soloist for this work, was in composing this movement. Written for the pianist’s particular ‘otherworldly touch’, as López Bellido describes it, it’s the complexity of scent and perfume that López Bellido is trying to achieve through Perianes’s particular shading and colouring: the precise differences between pianissimo and piano, or forte and fortissimo. Again, the movement takes us into some astonishingly brilliant writing for the instrument: crescendos become enormous, overpowering, until they collapse only to swell again.

The final movement – ‘Spice Bazaar’ – is the most overwhelming of the concerto because its scents tend to clash with one another. These – which the composer describes as like incense, patchouli and jasmine – cloud and soften the senses in the way that an opiate might. The movement is monumental in scale, not least in a magnificent cadenza which begins from the smallest of cut diamonds and morphs into something that eventually borders on the symphonic. With overwhelming timpani it has a force that is as powerful as the spices that engulf us.

Perianes – although playing from the score – breathed this music with a mercurial touch. Colours swept from the keyboard in a hedonistic rush, his technique and capacity for captivating drama reminding one of the potency and intensity that pianists like Earl Wild would bring to the keyboard. There was nothing in this astonishing performance of a brilliantly written concerto that disappointed.

Jonathan Berman

Berman’s gift for taut and rhythmic conducting in the López Bellido, had been anticipated in the opening work, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine. One of this composer’s most obviously minimalist pieces, Berman had no problems keeping the work tightly together – and more importantly meaningful to the vast jungle of rhythms that make it run on its very well-oiled orchestral engine. It would be a huge shift in the second half with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, although the work shares at least, peripherally, some of the orientalism – not least in Nietzsche’s poem – and its Dionysian statements about nature and colour as in Bellido’s concerto.

Berman paced the work beautifully – some conductors take a less fashionable, more languid approach to this work – and managed to get exquisite playing from the LPO. Von der Wissenschaft was especially impressive, not least the magnificent fugue where Strauss has the cellos ascend in pairs beginning on their lowest strings. But there was so much more to the performance – careful attention to the trombones and horns, the brilliant woodwind phrasing, the freedom he gave to the solo violin. It was extremely impressive in a work that often gets lost in transitioning its movements together.

These days one might expect more concerts to change soloists and conductors at short notice. They won’t always work. This one did exceptionally well under rather difficult circumstances, however.

Marc Bridle

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