An apprentice regrets his presumption, a composer experiences sorrow at the passing of an age, a Byronic hero is plagued by guilt over what he has done. Regret, sorrow and guilt: three emotionally effective strands of programming in this concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under its Music Director, Vasily Petrenko.

Daniel Müller-Schott
© Uwe Arens

In many respects, the performance of Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was very French. Velvety-soft strings and beautifully blended woodwind at the start, but with ideal transparency too, a sense of elegance maintained throughout the programmatic chaos, with no slithering or slipping on watery surfaces.

In his approach to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Daniel Müller-Schott proved himself to be the reincarnation of an Edwardian gentleman: noble, refined, dignified, with any notion of heart-on-sleeve banished in favour of restraint. The work is more than a statement of regret at the loss and suffering caused by the carnage of World War 1. As the composer remarked at the time, “Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away, never to return".

Such moderation and temperance in approach meant that the emotional undercurrents in the performance never competed against each other for attention. Müller-Schott’s series of extended sighs in the opening Moderato section, delivered in his characteristically dark and burnished tone, were matched by the silken orchestral accompaniment, Petrenko once more demonstrating his gift for sensitively mirroring a soloist’s intentions. In the Allegro molto section of the second movement, by way of a vivid contrast there was a playful element, Müller-Schott revelling in a carefree, catch-me-if-you-can cast of mind. The following Adagio was redolent in autumnal colouring, the fading russets, ambers and maroons reflected in the way soloist and conductor pared their sound back to almost nothing. From the robust, quasi-swashbuckling aspects at the start of the concluding Allegro to the flickering glimpses of earlier majesty at its close, the playing never once lost its overall integrity. It was like watching the dying embers of a fire in front of which chestnuts had earlier been roasted.

By now, under Petrenko, the RPO is an extremely stylish limousine, slipping almost imperceptibly through all the gears, but also powering along with maximum torque whenever required. This was splendidly on show in Tchaikovsky’s largest and most challenging score, his Manfred Symphony. The opening Lento lugubre had a remarkable richness and depth of tone, especially from the lower strings, and yet the Astarte theme was phrased with exceptional sensitivity.

These strong contrasts were to prove an organising characteristic of the performance, Petrenko now taking fractionally longer over the work than in his celebrated 2007 Liverpool recording. In the second movement, the elfin delicacy of the woodwind was echoed in the featherlight precision of the strings, giving the music a will-o’-the-wisp lightness. Tenderness too was much in evidence, not least in an episode in the Finale where after a big, bold and brassy climax a muted horn (excellent solos throughout from Ben Hulme) duets with the two harps, followed by an exquisite underlay from the soft upper strings. At the other end of the dynamic scale, the dark weightiness of the strings and baleful, braying of the trombones in the final coda were equally impressive, the blood now racing with the intake of additional oxygen.

The composer himself was quite ambiguous about this work, confiding in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck that he thought he was metamorphosing into a Manfred. Yet in its epic scale and opulent scoring, there are few other Romantic pieces to match its inspiration. Petrenko and the RPO did the work proud.