There’s always something celebratory about a festival opening night. Cheltenham, a spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds, basked in glorious evening sunshine as its music festival returned to full scale and full capacity. Behind the Town Hall, people gathered in Imperial Gardens, where a statue of Gustav Holst, born in Cheltenham, conducts an imaginary orchestra. Inside, the very real Royal Liverpool Philharmonic prepared to welcome its former Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko amid the hall’s pink marbled Corinthinian columns and coved ceiling. 

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

During his tenure, Petrenko turned the RLPO into the UK’s finest “Russian” orchestra and it was a programme of popular Russian classics that they brought with them from Merseyside. Sadly, another Russian import, the exciting young violinist Sergei Dogadin, could not make it, so was replaced in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by the excellent Simone Lamsma

The orchestra’s dark, Slavic sound certainly filled every inch of the space. Seating around 900, Cheltenham Town Hall, built at the turn of the 20th century, felt on the small side for such large repertoire, although the fine acoustics meant the sound was never congested. With only the brass raised steeply above the stage, there was a danger they would dominate – and they were suitably imposing in Sultan Shahryar’s menacing theme that opens Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – but Petrenko is a wily judge of balancing an orchestra and every detail told. 

Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, the briefest of tone poems, got the evening off to a vivid start, the witch of Russian fairy-tales pummelling her pestle, grinding her way across the skies to a clattering xylophone motif only to disappear in a piccolo puff of smoke, the stage quickly reset for Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto. There were moments early on when Lamsma and Petrenko seemed to view the piece differently; he launched the orchestral tutti at a brusque tempo whereas she wanted to apply the brakes on her first entry. Her first movement cadenza was unhurried, with great dynamic range and impeccable intonation. Lamsma has a terrific sound, an earthy lower register but a silvery top, and she dared to open the central Canzonetta with a veiled whisper, even if it was taken much slower than Tchaikovsky’s Andante tempo marking. One could sense Petrenko champing at the bit and he took his opportunity to put the vivacissimo into the finale, Lamsma taking up the challenge in a fiery dance. 

Simone Lamsma
© Otto van den Toorn

Petrenko’s reading of Scheherazade was packed with incident and excitement, as indeed are The Arabian Nights from which Rimsky-Korsakov took his inspiration. The sea surged violently during Sinbad’s voyage, and the young princess teased as her palanquin shimmied its dainty way through the third movement. Many conductors allow their woodwinds space to phrase their soliloquies in The Kalandar Prince – the score is marked ad lib – but Petrenko beat time and sculpted each one himself. I enjoyed the way leader Mikhel Kerem, voicing Scheherazade’s narrations, began the finale’s tale in a soft, hesitant tone, only to become defiantly gritty on its restatement; a pity that his intonation, possibly due to the heat in the hall, slipped in the perilously high epilogue. But by then, Shahryar had long been seduced by Scheherazade’s stories and so had we. Even the plaster statues of Edward VII and George V in coronation robes in the alcoves on either side of the stage looked down approvingly, a royal seal of approval.  

Mark’s press trip was funded by the Cheltenham Music Festival