Textbooks tell you that concertos are a battle between soloist and orchestra; and it’s a mostly unfair match, won by the orchestra through force of numbers. But not in the case of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, which pitches the mightiest of instruments against a modest string ensemble. In a big space like the Albert Hall, the strings are wiped out every time the organ enters.
But the drier, boxier acoustic of the Festival Hall, where it played last week, allows some possibility of balance. And that seemed like the objective of the young Spanish conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada as he managed the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s head-to-head with soloist James O’Donnell.
Honouring the music’s shifting moods – from grand, sepulchral Gothic horror to fairground schmaltz – O’Donnell’s registrations took care not to decimate the strings. And while Orozco-Estrada could have been more motivated in a reading that came close to sluggish, other things were well judged. As were both works in the second half.
The micro-managed busyness of Atmospheres, a piece of 1960s modernism by György Ligeti, and Richard Strauss’s epic tone-poem Also Sprach Zarathustra were paired together because they both featured on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001. But they also fitted into the over-arching theme that runs through the Southbank’s programming all this year – called Belief and Beyond Belief, and featuring music that responds to or reacts against the worship of a power beyond ourselves.
Meanwhile, something that would have made a robustly frivolous contribution to the “Belief ” season was the debunking of ancient gods delivered by Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, staged at the Hackney Empire in a Royal Academy of Music production. Done with a student cast who threw themselves manfully – sometimes womanfully – into their roles, it was absurdly camp but very funny. Quite well sung, too.
Singing wasn’t the strong point of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, at Wilton’s Music Hall, Whitechapel, before a UK tour; but as the only puppet opera I’ve ever seen that merits X-certification, it had impact in other ways. Based on the apparently true story of an 18th-century freak show whose performers ate live snakes, cats and amputated limbs for the delight of paying audiences, it was so revolting I felt sick by half time. But that, in its way, was a tribute to the bizarre puppetry of a company called Wattle & Daub – allied to a Broadway-operatic score by Tom and Tobi Poster that mixed pathos in with the macabre.
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