The indisputable justification for Khachaturian’s continuing musical existence is the evergreen Adagio from his ballet Spartacus, with its ravishing melody dressed up in the finest orchestration. It is surprisingly rarely played in the concert hall though and it was a delight to hear it so elegantly and passionately delivered by Vasily Petrenko the London Philharmonic Orchestra. 

George Li © Simon Fowler
George Li
© Simon Fowler

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor that followed is not lacking big tunes. In fact, they can sometimes get in the way of producing a coherent structure, particularly in the rambling first movement. Here the soloist needs to carry the weight of responsibility in maintaining dramatic impetus. Generally, the more daring and “on the edge” the performance, the less the cracks in the structure show. George Li, a 2015 prize winner at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, certainly didn’t lack power or sensitivity. He seemed able to encompass all the mood swings in a remarkably assured manner. However, the final release of controlled abandonment that marks the best performances was absent.

Li was very seductive in the slow movement, accompanied by beautiful woodwind playing from the LPO. The central fast section was stunningly light and airy. The unalloyed joy of the Finale was effortlessly virtuosic, with fast tempos enthusiastically maintained by all. An encore of Giovanni Sgambati's delicate arrangement of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits almost overshadowed all the bluster and fireworks. 

Walton’s First Symphony from 1935 rounded off the evening in a blaze of brassy glory. Petrenko approached the work in a full-blooded fashion, which didn’t always hit the mark, but was ultimately thrilling. The opening movement was the most problematic. Arguably Walton’s greatest achievement, it is a miracle of unreleased tension. However, it requires a graded approach to this tension, to achieve the sense of inevitability of the final climax. Petrenko shot his bolt too early so it felt like there was nowhere to go after the development section. Maybe he feels that this is the point of the movement, which is the composer's response to a destructive but passionate relationship, but its grinding discords make more impact in a context of more Sibelian growth.

The tempo of the Scherzo was dangerously fast. This certainly generated a sense of excitement and danger. The orchestra felt just about able to sustain these speeds, but there were times when the movement seemed jaunty rather than jagged in the way the composer intended. The end of the movement made up for this, with an almost abusive attack on the final cadence. The deeply felt slow movement is directly personal in a way that is very rare in Walton’s output and can be very moving, as it was here, with Petrenko not a conductor to shirk from emotion.

The Finale is the most problematic movement and can make or break the whole interpretation, the issue being that the unique intensity of the first three movements isn’t present. By the time Walton started work on it, he had moved onto another more settled relationship. Instead, the music is a brilliant and mostly positive showpiece, which can seem rather empty after what has gone before. Petrenko and the LPO pulled out all the stops from the outset as he did in the first movement. However, in this instance it worked better as the composer built in extra brass and percussion to ensure that the coda caps all. They emphatically made the case for the finale being a fitting apotheosis to the whole remarkable achievement.

****1