Richard Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony of 1915 is one of those works for which people will often travel large distances, such is its vastness in scale. Vasily Petrenko’s account of a day’s walking in the Alps did not disappoint, and it was well supported by an intriguing programme of Tchaikovsky and Canteloube.

Jennifer Johnston © Gisela Schenker
Jennifer Johnston
© Gisela Schenker
Tchaikovsky’s Seasons are best known as piano miniatures, commissioned as twelve monthly instalments for a St Petersburg journal. Tonight’s format was a world première of orchestrations of the final four months of the year by Israel-based Russian Sergei Abir, who did a superb job of capturing and expounding the microclimate of each month. September (The Hunt) was all brassy fanfares and pomp, followed by the dark, velvety textures Petrenko found in October’s Autumn Song. November’s Troika and Christmas in December zipped along festively without straying into the saccharine. The set of four movements gelled successfully as a whole and I will look forward to hearing Abir orchestrations again.

The other relative obscurity of the evening was a selection of Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, taken from five books of the Frenchman’s collected folksongs. The remarkable mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, Liverpudlian by birth and dual-trained in law and music, was an excellent soloist. Her handling of tonight’s seven shepherd songs was generally light of hand and smooth in tone, steering clear of overly-forced diction. To the first few songs she gave a gentle edge of melancholy, while the latter three found a more assertive, humorous bounce. It was the former which were the more successful, finding a serenely bucolic air in the shepherds' innocent tunes. There was, perhaps, room for both soloist and orchestra to enjoy the more comical songs ("Wretched is he who has a wife // Wretched is he who has not!") more than they did; as it was, Petrenko's lively three-in-a-bar seemed only to be fully embraced by the sleigh bell player. Nonetheless, as a pastoral prelude to the giant of the concert's second half it was a clever and successful piece of programming.

Strauss' gargantuan Alpine Symphony, rather decadently being performed twice this week by the orchestra, required the assembly of over 120 musicians, with the brass section occupying the space all the way at the top of the choir seats, from which high altitude they roared magnificently when called upon. The offstage hunting party, reinforced with trumpets and trombones, played their brief role with aplomb, hidden away stage left. Petrenko, having wandered onto the stage as if about to take a lunchtime stroll through Vienna, took the early parts of the ascent with similar casualness, airily skipping through the forest and alongside the brook. Throughout the piece the orchestra made the most of Strauss' extraordinarily graphic writing, which made for a brilliantly convincing waterfall from the woodwind, and a flowering meadow complete with bleating flute-sheep and a herd of percussionists lined up with cowbells.

Petrenko avoided lingering too long in the summit, however glorious the moment was, and instead pushed on into the most brutal of storms, emphatically exaggerating the darker aspects of Strauss' natural world. After the series of towering thunderclaps it was quite a relief to come upon the sunset passage, where organ and solo horn combined beautifully in a moving recapitulation of the mountain theme. Aside from a few moments of slightly errant tuning between high woodwind and violins this was a wonderful, quietly ecstatic final hymn to the mountain, capping an original and captivating account of the symphony.

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