Making his debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra just a week earlier in Brighton, Eduardo Portal now made it to the capital. He has no doubt booked a return visit to the LPO (he also has a forthcoming debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra) for the conclusion of Pictures at an Exhibition found ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ opening out gloriously to cap a mixed-success performance. Orchestral musicians must groan when the parts for this ubiquitous score are dished out (some listeners, too!) and there are numerous versions of Mussorgsky’s piano suite other than Ravel’s scoring. Nevertheless this is what we got. I’m sure that trumpeter Paul Beniston didn’t need to be conducted to launch the work, and Portal miscalculated the gaps between ‘paintings’, far too long on their own terms, which gave the numerous coughers in the audience every opportunity to share their ailments; an aural scar all evening. In a performance that moved between the ordinary and the individual, ‘Gnomus’ was presented as volatile while ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs’ was fast enough to lose menace (the middle section dawdled). Martin Robertson’s saxophone solo in ‘The Old Castle’ beguiled (how many times has he played it, I wonder) and David Whitehouse pulled out all the trumps on euphonium in ‘Bydlo’.
Earlier, Craig Ogden has been amplified – nadir and anathema rolled into one – for Rodrigo’s guitar concerto. The guitar’s image became larger than life (rather like being too closely recorded) and sounded somewhat edgy. The composer may have sanctioned such action for larger concert halls, but in the Royal Festival Hall’s immediate and unencumbered acoustic the magnification was at-odds with the LPO’s naturalness (fine solos from cellist Timothy Walden and from Sue Bohling on cor anglais) and detracted from a stylish performance by all concerned.
Eduardo Portal is an impressive young conductor; he possesses a lucid technique used in service of the music and with a clear idea of what he wants. He also has an innate relish for what he conducts. Either side of Rodrigo were other Spanish pieces. The orchestral diptych from El mozo de mulas (The Muleteer) suggests that the death of short-lived Antonio José (1902-1936, he was shot in the first days of the Spanish Civil War) robbed music of a significant composer: Artur Rubinstein called him “a new Falla.” We were not told why his opera The Muleteer has never been performed (it seems to have been completed), for on the strength of the beautiful ‘Prelude’, with hints of Wagner and French Romanticism rising to a steamy climax, and ‘Popular Dance’ – suggestive of festive folk gathering for a colourful ceremony – then the stage-work itself seems well-worth investigating.
Portal and the LPO gave José’s lovely and exhilarating music with sympathy and panache; and in the ‘old’ Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat suites (just over half of the complete score) the conductor brought fastidious attention to orchestral detail and dynamics to leave in no doubt as to there being a narrative behind the notes. With nifty speeds that never seemed rushed, and with some malleability, the score was brilliantly brought off, the LPO incisive, deft and expressive.