Well-juxtaposed programme from Karina Canellakis and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom R. Strauss, Ravel, Tania León: Cédric Tiberghien (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 25.10.2023. (JR)

Karina Canellakis conducts pianist Cédric Tiberghien and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO

R. StraussDon Juan, Op.20; Death and Transfiguration, Op.24
Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Tania León – Horizons 

Instead of an overture, a shortish tone poem by Richard Strauss, his popular Don Juan. Apart from some fine solo contributions from wistful oboe (Ian Hardwick) and clarinet (Benjamin Mellefont), some first-rate horns, this felt like a routine run-through. Principal Guest Conductor Karina Canellakis brought out the delicacies of texture and orchestration, and the constantly changing moods of the piece, but I wasn’t swept away.

Ravel wrote his Concerto for the Left Hand for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in the First World War. The concert programme contained an interesting discussion about which hand, as a concert pianist, would you rather lose – left or right? The argument put forward was that a pianist is better served with his left hand rather than his right, as on the left hand the most agile fingers (forefinger and thumb) are at the top of the left hand, better able to pick out melodies than the other fingers. Tiberghien (a look-a-like of the young Ravel) has recorded this concerto with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles last year, to rave reviews. Tiberghien revealed Ravel in all his passion, refined delicacy and technical wizardry; he navigated the work with consummate ease. Bassoon and trombone solos impressed from the orchestra, Canellakis accompanied with precision. Warm applause was rewarded by an encore, apt as we approach Bonfire Night, Debussy’s Feux d’artifice: Tiberghien’s virtuosity was simply stunning, the fireworks really fizzed.

Karina Canellakis conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO

American composer Tania Leónis the London Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence for the next two seasons. León composed her short piece Horizons in 1999: this was the UK premiere. The artistic world is rightly catching up fast with artists, particularly those who are or were black and female. Leónwas born in Cuba 80 years ago but has spent most of her professional life in New York City. She founded Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert series, was New Music Adviser at the New York Philharmonic, and Latin American music adviser for the American Composers Orchestra. Horizons was commissioned by Hamburg’s Harmoniale – Festival der Frauen. In the short piece, one can hear the influences of Latin America (especially in the vibrant percussion), Harlem and Brooklyn – and the musical influence of Leonard Bernstein. Flutes warbled, brass burbled, the harp rippled. León describes the piece as having no fixed form, which made for a muddled conception as a listener. The composer was present and received a very warm reception.

The best was, in my view, left to last. Best rehearsed, best played, a substantial tone poem by Richard Strauss which thrilled and overwhelmed: Death and Transfiguration. Leader Pieter Schoeman delighted us with his delicate solo, the double basses caught eye and ear as they sawed away their ground bass with gusto towards the end of the piece. Canellakis was most impressive as she maintained a very steady (heart)beat and brought the work to its radiant close, her rapport with the orchestra evident. With the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall Canellakis next tackles Shostakovich’s mighty Eighth Symphony which will be more of a challenge and almost certainly a moving experience. I look forward to it.

John Rhodes

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