Elgar and Mahler share a rich variety of expression and a humanity which is both individual and universal. The two works given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vasily Petrenko are only six years apart, but they inhabit an entirely different cosmos. Elgar’s Sea Pictures might easily have been eclipsed by Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony no. 6 in A minor, but these clear-sighted and involving performances, both showcasing a masterly use of the orchestra, were played with total commitment.

Vasily Petrenko
© Ben Wright

Elgar is still regarded as a quintessentially English composer, but his musical roots are continental, very much in evidence in Sea Pictures where little or nothing might be described as “stout and steaky”. The songs are much associated with Dames Janet Baker and, in recent years, Sarah Connolly. But Kathryn Rudge also fully identifies with Elgar’s settings and brought off an impressive rendition plumbing their emotional depths. Mercifully, she wasn’t attired as a mermaid, as reportedly was Dame Clara Butt for the work’s 1899 premiere in Norwich. There were hints of a rich contralto register in Rudge’s lightish mezzo, and a fulsome upper range, but her climax closing Sabbath Morning at Sea never quite found another vocal gear, notwithstanding her perfectly manicured tone. She’s a natural performer, and this was a masterclass in communication with her expressive hands and ever-mobile face. In Haven was a delight and the mysteries of the deep graphically conveyed in Where corals lie. The “brave white horses” of The Swimmer needed little imagination to conjure the swell of the sea and throughout, the RPO were considerate collaborators with Petrenko bringing clarity and refinement to the work’s ever-changing sonorities.

Petrenko’s Mahler was a different animal all together, grimly determined bow strokes at the start, both brutal and uncompromising, and coloured, over the course of its 80 or so minutes, by an unrelenting intensity that was emotionally draining. His grip on proceedings showed little sign of relaxing even for the Alma theme, where violins played with a fierce passion, marvellously unanimous in tone, if somewhat overheated. Mahler’s sonic variety was nicely spot-lit in the opening movement – tremolo strings, harp and celesta catching the ear, and an impish (or was it macabre?) wit breaking through the metallic surface near the close.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ben Wright

The decision to place the Scherzo second added to the endless debate as to Mahler’s intentions for its place within the symphony yet made absolute sense here in the way Petrenko conceived it as an expanded epilogue to the first movement. Its rhythmic bite was no less demonstrative, nor sonorities any less distinctive, ‘bells up’ clarinets enjoying its Klezmer inflections. Alpine vistas were authoritatively conjured in the Andante, its climaxes finely judged, and its main theme distinguished by fabulous string tone, if one not necessarily conveying nostalgia. The Finale was a rhythmically taut affair and hard driven. But it was not without drama (those notorious hammer blows) and pageantry, although the starkness of Petrenko’s conception was not necessarily registered by an over eager audience all too keen to applaud after the work’s final death-blow. All in all, a shattering performance of volcanic power and leaving one in no doubt as to the strength of his relationship with the RPO.