Early and late Tchaikovsky bookended the programme that Vasily Petrenko, Music Director Designate of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted in the Royal Albert Hall.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall
© Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Voyevoda was the first opera conceived by the Russian composer. Based on a libretto by Alexander Ostrovsky, it had its premiere at the Bolshoi Theater in 1869. A displeased Tchaikovsky later destroyed the score (there have been attempts to reconstruct it during the Soviet era). The overture is seldom performed despite already including significant traits of Tchaikovsky’s mature style. Petrenko underlined the skilful orchestral writing and the effort to integrate folk melodies into a Western-style idiom. A beautiful melody, initially intoned only by the horn, tends to turn into a motum perpetuum, with strings becoming more and more assertive and eventually taking it over. A contrasting Andante cantabile featured Patrick Flanigan’s melodious cor anglais in dialogue with the strings while the Finale culminated in one of those well-calibrated but grandiloquent statements that reappear in Tchaikovsky’s scores.

In his introductory notes, Petrenko talked about Tchaikovsky’s changing perspective on fate and the afterlife in his late symphonies and the ambiguous message of the Fifth Symphony whose last movement could be understood as both a “victory of life” but also as a “march of the Grim Reaper through the fields”. It was not exactly clear how well the conductor’s verbal vision translated into the musical rendition. In Petrenko’s hands, the symphony was a well-crafted musical construction that, at times, lacked immediacy. Nevertheless, the interpretation had several memorable features such as the different instrumental pairings in the Andante cantabile, the sinuosity of the Allegretto moderato, or the strings’ warmth. The conductor never rushed the tempos (except the Finale) and made sure that he let individual instrumentalists shine in their many incidental solos.

Paul Lewis
© Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Sandwiched between the two Tchaikovsky works was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major with Paul Lewis. In an apparent sign of ubiquity, the RPO recorded stream was released at the same time as Lewis’ solo Mozart and Schubert recital filmed in Sheffield. Considering that many a times Lewis’ Beethoven – removed from any romantic grandstanding – represents a true midpoint between Mozart and Schubert’s styles, there was something ironic in this coincidence! Lewis’ playing, with an immaculate technique always subservient to interpretative goals (as in the formidable glissando at the end of the development section of the first movement), was an almost perfect balancing act between contemplative and energetic moments. 

After a lengthy orchestral introduction where Petrenko established the parameters of his approach to the concerto, Lewis’ entrance was both authoritative and blended well with the RPO's sound. He continued to shape every phrase with remarkable elegance and articulation. The Largo, taken at an unhurried pace, was reminiscent of Mozart concertos’ slow movements with their ethereal “singing” piano line. In an innovative move, the video director had the brilliant idea of superimposing the images of Lewis and the principal clarinetist Katherine Lacey during the last bars of their extensive dialogue. The extrovert Rondo was full of wit, a display of a continuous entente between soloist and orchestra. Lewis employed a large spectrum of colours, with added moments of brilliance, and cajoled by Petrenko, the woodwinds were as playful here as they were warm and thoughtful in the prior section. The evolving relationship between Petrenko and the RPO is one to be followed. Hopefully, they will invite Lewis to be their soloist again in the not too distant future.

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream