Einstein’s theories of relativity present the idea that time is not fixed. It can be stretched or compressed, and so it can appear that time passes at different speeds. This seemed to be the case with the two symphonies that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra played last night at Sage Gateshead. The endlessly pulsing energy that underpinned most of Philip Glass’s Symphony no. 11 was music that sped up time, whilst under the direction of the RLPO’s Chief Conductor, Vasily Petrenko, Rachmaninov’s second Symphony allowed the frantic pace of life to slow down.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Despite this fundamental difference, the two symphonies, written just over a century apart, made surprisingly good concert neighbours: there were even a few moments of luxurious string writing and choral brass in the slow movement of Philip Glass’ symphony that, taken out of context, could have been mistaken for Rachmaninov. Both pieces expressed a direct emotional honesty, and projected a sense of huge physical space, albeit seen from different viewpoints. Glass had us soaring above his landscape, looking downwards to watch a continent of bustling human activity, whilst Rachmaninov planted us on the ground and made us look up at the immense sky.

Glass’s Eleventh Symphony marks his 80th birthday, and the RLPO gave its UK première two days ago. It’s recognisably Glass, built up from repeated and subtly varying rhythmic patterns, with lots of relentless arpeggios for the strings: I thought I was enjoying their energy, but when they suddenly stopped just before the end of the first movement, I felt a disorienting sense of relief. The piece opens with a chirpy piano solo, punctuated by miniscule doses of percussion that gradually developed into a melody as more instruments joined in. Petrenko mirrored the music with big gestures, painting a very clear picture of the sounds he wanted, reaching out to pull snatches of sound from the orchestra, and letting his body pulse with the hypnotic underlying beat of the music: I spent a lot of time fascinated by his movements in this symphony, whilst in the Rachmaninov he used far fewer gestures, and was doing so much with the music, that I barely noticed him.

Glass’ second movement was awash with emotion, with a slow, stretched-out motif being passed around solo instruments, including a muted tuba and a contrabass clarinet. A cor anglais solo and a solemn brass chorus then led into a livelier dancing section and the lower strings kept up their restless for some time after the rest of the orchestra had subsided back into calm. It was all very enjoyable, but without making any serious demands on me as a listener. An extended passage for mixed percussion was a fun opening to the last movement, setting us up for music where rhythm dominated over melody. Parts of this last movement were a picture of chaos, with sections of the orchestra operating on slightly different times, until martial rhythms on the drums marshalled everyone into order for an excitingly jazzy ending.

Perhaps because it was such a contrast to the hectic ending of the Glass, the opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony was blissful for its spacious stillness, and it was a relief to hear long melodic ideas slowly unfurling. The tempi weren’t necessarily slow, in fact at times Petrenko let the music flow forwards at a good pace, but there was a serenity about it that suggested that the music was inhabiting an entirely different time frame from ours.

Rachmaninov doesn’t directly quote any Orthodox chants in this symphony, but they’re ever-present as a musical idea, and Petrenko brought this out very strongly, letting the chant-like tunes sing out triumphantly in the winds and brass.  Angelo Montanaro’s clarinet solo at the beginning of the second movement was a beautifully sustained, singing legato, leading into generously expressive playing from the whole orchestra. There was also some sumptuous dancing from the strings, looking back to the ballrooms of Tchaikovsky.

Throughout the Rachmaninov, Petrenko caressed and nurtured the sound, carefully controlling every build-up. He has a wonderful trick of appearing to hold back, keeping the expressivity under restraint and building very subtly until, without knowing quite how the we got there, I would suddenly realise that the music has become highly emotional. Petrenko repeated this trick at the larger scale too. There was a lot of dark brass in the first movement with just a hint of sunlight around the edge of brooding clouds, and as the symphony developed, Petrenko gradually let in more and more light – little flashes of it in the second movement, warm autumnal sunlight in the third, but always keeping something in reserve until the last few pages, when he was visibly begging his orchestra to give more, knowing that there was just a little bit left for an ending that blazed with almost unendurable brightness.