Now enjoying status as the cornerstone work of this year's celebrations to mark the composer's 80th birthday, Philip Glass' Eleventh Symphony received its UK première at Philharmonic Hall by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under its director, Vasily Petrenko.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Whilst Glass cites the Eleventh as part of his “late-period” style, it appears to court something of a return to form, to re-establish continuities between the old and the new in revisiting those quintessential stylistic hallmarks which were for a while eschewed. That being said – and taking the composer's advice to “just go with the music, paying attention as well as you can” (more an invitation to kick back than to brace for a bumpy ride?) – this was an altogether less predictable sound world experience than that of vintage Glass. The signature cyclic patterns again pervade, not so much cast in the sustained hypnotic 'sonic weather' undulations of old, but rather in clear parametric structures, though the shimmering string arpeggiations are still, inevitably, a ubiquitious presence. So too, the familiar routines of pulse are still motoric and bouyant but transformed through polyrhythms and asymmetrical patterns which were articulated by Petrenko with his trademark upper-body dance moves, coaxing just the right off-beat tonal stress from the immaculately polished RLPO strings.

If there was a single misgiving, it lay with the second movement whose filmic scope felt disproportionately epic, and despite the episodic contrasts of more syncopated, feverish themes and the relief from the palette of orchestral colour (the harp, for example, an exquisite tonal counterpoint), the movement engendered a certain longeur.

Not least of the work's many attractions was the sense of relish the composer conveys in his predilection for percussion. Generously scored, the considerable forces (eight percussionists plus timpanist playing much of the time) are virtuosically, yet never gratuitously, employed – even concertante in character at times – both in dialogue (memorably with low brass at the outset of the first movement and with trombones at the start of the third) and as integrated elements of the orchestration: without doubt, a compelling factor in the personality of a work which may well be counted as one of the composer's most sophisticated to date, yet one which is wholly redolent of what has always been the fundamental appeal of his music.

The symphony's companion piece in the first half, Dvořák's Suite in A major, Op.98b, ('American'), is a work sadly overlooked: too often branded as “classical light” perhaps, with its simplicity and profusion of singable tunes. Yet therein lies its very charm, and just as with those other hymns to American frontier country – the New World Symphony, the Violin Sonatina and the “American” String Quartet – the music is shot through with endearingly earnest evocations of folk character (though difficult to hear where the music of the American hearth ends and Bohemian folksong begins) and with those undeniable, despite pre-dating the Jazz Age, intimations of jazz inflecting the music and lending an American accent to the Slavonic voice.

The performance drew all possible colour from the orchestration and every ounce of sweetness from the melodic lines. Sectional transitions were not always seamlessly managed in the first Andante, but Petrenko made the most of the episodic rondo character of the following Allegro, nicely nuancing touches of rubato sentiment in the slower sections, and teasing the mutest of pianissimi out of the strings, as also in the tender second Andante

The most traditional and formal of Scriabin's four symphonies, the Symphony no. 2 in C minor, may not quite inhabit the ecstatic realms of mysticism of his third and fourth, but the rare chance to hear that burgeoning, albeit more earthbound, compositional voice in progress was a reminder that this symphony is unduly overshadowed by its successors: indeed another work too seldom aired. Certainly, it's difficult for audiences today to imagine how its première in 1902 could have inspired impassioned derision. Scriabin's pride in the symphony was justified: his quest to seek “light in music” is reached in every corner of the music through its lyricism, sweeping musical narratives and lucidly transparent orchestration, and even the eccentric finale, of which he later spoke with some disdain, thrills with its tempestuously, yet triumphantly, festive air; at times almost Elgarian in ceremonial swagger.

This was a performance of great dramatic intensity, Petrenko's elasticity with pulse in the Andantes allowing the melodies to course and breathe, and his lithe, energetic style in the fast movements affording the music great drive. There was vibrant solo playing throughout, with the third movement's opening flute solo (Cormac Henry) a standout moment of the entire evening: a breathtaking intonation of one of the most arresting evocations of birdsong ever written. 

****1