Pablo Heras-Casado, the dapper 36-year-old conductor from Granada, has been making waves both internationally and in New York as chief of the Orchestra of St Luke’s. This Southbank Centre matinee concert marked his Philharmonia Orchestra debut, and is also appearing with the LSO later this spring.
As much at home in period style as in contemporary music, he has a freshness and intelligence that fairly blew a gale through this programme’s standard overture-concerto-symphony format, drawing performances of great energy and insight. Conducting without a baton, his beat flows with a powerful blend of tightness and elasticity, and the sound he drew from the Philharmonia had a satisfying edge of clarity, separation and immediacy. This suited the Egmont Overture like a glove, the weight and drag of the opening clutching at the music’s character and presenting a wonderfully bleak contrast to the explosive coda.
It set the scene for Heras-Casado’s well-judged support and containment of Nikolai Lugansky’s volatility in the ‘Emperor’ Concerto. The Russian pianist’s stage-presence gives little away, but his playing is another matter. With Heras-Casado’s astute classical hand on the tiller, Lugansky consistently tugged at the music’s romanticism – the barnstorming moments were prodigiously virtuosic and sonorous, but just as relevant was the refinement of his retreats into poetry – a yin and yang process that Lugansky managed with superlative and poised vitality. His rhythmic definition in the finale added layers of expression to the dialogue, and the move out of the dreams of the slow movement was a miracle of reluctant leave-taking and rearing expectation.
In Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony, Heras-Casado, with magical sleight of hand, brought a Brahmsian intensity out of neatly applied ‘period’ habits. The result was the essence of romanticism, a vivid, generous performance that embraced the highland sweep of the land of the mountain and the flood. Detail made an impression, the slow movement had an epic, bard-like quality and the ensemble had the connected independence that distinguishes the great orchestras.