After a spoken introduction to each piece on the programme from conductor Vasily Petrenko, Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture made a lively curtain-raiser. Composed for the 70th anniversary of Johannesburg in 1956, it was described by Walton as “a non-stop gallop... slightly crazy, hilarious and vulgar”. With five percussionists performing on a dozen instruments, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provided hilarity of the right sort, in a performance that made the piece sound better than its reputation.

Vasily Petrenko
© Ben Wright | Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The full scoring (quadruple wind, etc.) of the 1911 version of Petrushka provided the once familiar sight of a full Royal Festival Hall platform, whence the RPO could look out upon a pretty full audience. The Vivace opening bustle of the Shrovetide Fair, lightly scored at first, until the drunken revellers bring in their fff frenzy, set the tone for a performance which involved us in the ballet’s tale, even producing an audience chuckle when the orchestra falls silent but for a solitary contrabassoon forte crotchet. The magician’s flute (Emer McDonough) rose and fell seductively, as did the ballerina’s ‘toy trumpet’ (Bo Fuglsang). In Petrushka’s Cell is the second scene where the work originated as a concertante piece, and Ian Buckle’s alert playing suggested that could have been a good idea.

Elgar's Violin Concerto in B minor bears a superscription (in Spanish): “Herein is enshrined the soul of …..”, the dots often taken to refer to Alice Stuart Wortley, to whom Elgar wrote as his concerto, with its ‘windflower’ themes, progressed. ‘Windflower’ was Elgar’s nickname for her, perhaps because she shared the wood anemone's delicate charms. Less delicate was Elgar’s description of one of those themes as “bloody romantic, and I should bloody well know, as I bloody well wrote it.”

I don’t know if soloist Ning Feng knew all this background, but there is no escaping the solo part’s forest of expression marks, often a different one for successive notes and phrases. A soloist can adjust such details, but never ignore their implication of passionate spontaneity. Ning was ideal, navigating the alternation of demanding semiquaver figuration and tenderly lyrical moments with a sure sense of Elgar’s argument. The orchestra and conductor do not exactly have an easy time either, but produced a stirring contribution, and in the long con passione passage of the first movement, Petrenko and his players let rip, in a thrilling realisation of Elgar’s torrential invention. Not for nothing was this concert billed by the Southbank Centre as “Vassily Petrenko conducts Elgar's Violin Concerto”(!)

Vasily Petrenko conducts the RPO
© Ben Wright | Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Andante’s long arc of passionate melody was shared between the RPO and Ning with great feeling for their mutual interdependence, and Petrenko was scrupulous in keeping the dynamics low enough so that his soloist could make the work’s quiet moments sound like intimate confidences. At the climax Elgar instructs the violinist to use vibrato (not routine in string playing in 1910), which was hardly necessary as Ning had used it throughout, but varied in intensity as required of the moment. The finale’s accompanied cadenza was hauntingly nostalgic, and Feng’s and the RPO’s final flourish was nobilmente indeed.

This brilliant performance was rapturously received. Ning Feng introduced his encore with “Well, you all know this piece”. In Paganini’s preposterously difficult Variations on God Save the King, (aka ‘God Save the Violinist’) the left hand pizzicati and double harmonics caused Ning no difficulty, despite adding about 25% to his note count for the evening in five minutes.

This was a testing programme, and the RPO musicians, individually and corporately, sounded in fine shape for the new season, and the partnership with their new Music Director already looks highly promising.