When conductor Vasily Petrenko made his debut with The Cleveland Orchestra last summer, he crafted a thrilling performance of Rachmaninovʼs Second Symphony that prompted one longtime orchestra observer to declare, “There was nothing clichéd about that cliché!” Evidently the musicians and orchestra managers felt the same way, as Petrenko was invited back to lead two concerts this summer. The first, a 20th-century mash-up of Elgar and Bartók, showed an artist with a command and range well beyond the Russian repertoire.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Petrenko, who was named Artist of the Year at the 2017 Gramophone Awards, seems to be everywhere these days. He is Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which has already created a Conductor Laureate position for him after his current contract expires in 2021. Over the past seven years his prolific recording output with the RLPO has focused principally on the Russian mainstays – Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky. But if heʼs brought a Russian sensibility to Liverpool, his performance in Cleveland suggested that aesthetics flow in both directions, and heʼs absorbed a bit of the Brits'. 

He opened Elgarʼs concert overture In the South in high spirits, striking an optimistic tone that continued throughout the entire piece. There were dire moments, notably when the brass and percussion go full-blast to invoke the ancient war images inspired by Elgarʼs stay in Alassio, Italy. But the overall mood was uplifting – bright, colorful, at times almost pulsating with energy. The playing was lively and crisp, particularly in the strings, which got a good workout. 

The British influence was apparent in the overtureʼs gentler interludes, which had a pleasantly pastoral feel. Balancing sweet sentimentality with polished precision is not unique to British orchestras, but they certainly excel in that department, and the native touch in this performance was unmistakable. In all, it was a sharp yet heartfelt interpretation that reflected both Petrenkoʼs skills and strengths and the orchestraʼs versatility. 

Bartókʼs Concerto for Orchestra is a showpiece that spotlights almost every section of the orchestra over five movements and demands considerable finesse from the conductor, starting with the low opening rumble that gradually builds to a rush of melodies and ideas. This is Petrenkoʼs forte, drawing out fine sounds that clarify and add to the piece, and moving seamlessly from tender moments to grand tumult. The trumpets in the Game of Pairs second movement had a razorʼs edge, while the twinned woodwind melodies swirled around each other in what can only be described as a 3-D effect. The centerpiece, the third movement Elegy, was hypnotic, with strings that were nearly weeping at times. Petrenko even found some humor, notably in the bassoon lines in the second movement and the horns describing the drunken fracas in the fourth. 

He barely paused between movements, adding to the propulsive flow of the music. Structurally, one way to view the concerto is as an amalgam of disparate, even disjointed moments. Ultimately it all comes together, but to maintain that through feel throughout the entire piece is an impressive accomplishment. Add in the natural elegance that Petrenko brings to everything he touches, and you have audiences leaping to their feet, as this one did while the final notes were still reverberating. 

The Cleveland Orchestra is often described as the most European of American orchestras. This particular match went that one better, invoking the European sound and milieu while offering a fresh perspective that left all the clichés far behind.