During Vasily Petrenko's long tenure as Chief Conductor, he has turned the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic into the UK's most Russian of orchestras. Their Shostakovich, in particular, has won critical plaudits, but for this Friday matinee at Philharmonic Hall, the focus was on three of Dmitri Dmitriyevich's comrades, including a remarkable concerto performance by French-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović that challenged the usual preconceptions.

Nemanja Radulović © Charlotte Abramow | DG
Nemanja Radulović
© Charlotte Abramow | DG

Aram Khachaturian still gets a bad press, both for his politics and his music. Despite being denounced in the 1948 Zhdanov decree, he regained favour with the ruling Communist Party, holding the post of Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers from 1957 until his death. His music is often dismissed as brash – even the once ubiquitous Sabre Dance rarely gets an outing these days – but I confess to being rather partial to his urgent, primary colours. Subtlety isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Khachaturian's exuberant Violin Concerto yet after the introductory salvo was pummelled out by the orchestra and the soloist had bitten into his first gritty bars, what emerged was surprising.

Despite his rock star looks, Radulović is the most sensitive of violinists, treating his opening theme with kittenish playfulness. The cantabile second subject was bathed in silk, while the spitting double-stopping in David Oistrakh's cadenza – Khachaturian's “unplayable” original is usually rejected – were muscular. Radulović often turned to face the woodwinds for his amorous exchanges with Pedro Franco Lopez' velvety clarinet, a reminder that Khachaturian wrote a very attractive clarinet trio. Always scrupulous towards dynamics, Radulović never forced too hard; indeed, the soloist is only required to reach fortissimo in the movement's closing nine bars.

After the predatory bassoon's sinister incantation, as if shrouded in a monk's habit, the Andante sostenuto emerged as a nocturnal Armenian serenade, with burnished contributions from the RLPO's viola section. Despite the orchestra coming out all guns blazing for the finale, Radulović danced in carefree manner, his infectious spirit transferring to the jaunty oboes. A premature horn ejaculation seemed entirely forgivable in the concerto's exuberant climax.

Petrenko ensured the rest of the programme was as full of character. Soviet drollery was daubed all over Rodion Shchedrin's Naughty Limericks, brushed snare drum, jazzy basses and flatulent trombones to the fore. It's refreshing to hear a conductor take to the microphone to talk about the music, Petrenko even reciting one of the less “salty” Russian limericks for the pre-watershed audience. His introduction to excerpts from Romeo and Juliet was delivered with dry wit and a wink, explaining how the pragmatic Prokofiev arranged his music into two suites before the ballet had even been staged.

The excerpts played here were drawn from both these suites – delivered in non-chronological order so that we began with the heavy artillery brass of Montagues and Capulets and concluded with the col legno clatter and rapier-swift Death of Tybalt and its cataclysmic aftermath. Conducting with small gestures, his baton often drawing the players towards his eyes, Petrenko demonstrated how the RLPO can turn on a sixpence, switching from mighty bombast to Juliet's capricious capers in an instant. Only some wayward violin intonation when playing ppp briefly soured the playing. The noble horn theme in Romeo and Juliet before Parting rang out gloriously, the Philharmonic Hall's warm acoustic not being overly reverberant, while icy strings stabbed in the scene at Juliet's tomb. No doubt about it, under Petrenko the RLPO is a crack Soviet ensemble.

 

Mark's travel to Liverpool was funded by the RLPO

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