This weekend, the popular Sunday matinee concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra featured the dynamic Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko. We have been hearing great things about him as the chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (he also takes up the post of chief conductor at the Oslo Philharmonic from the 2013/14 season) and this guest performance with a London orchestra was much anticipated.

Vasily Petrenko, © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko,
© Mark McNulty

It was unfortunate for Petrenko as well as for the audience that the planning for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto had been beset with soloist changes. When the original soloist James Ehnes pulled out, he was initially replaced by Valeriy Sokolov. However, Sokolov then fell ill and Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud stepped in heroically at the last minute.

Considering such circumstances, Kraggerud performed to the best of his ability on the day (in fact, he stood in for Sokolov in three different concerti within five days, which itself is an admirable feat). Technically it was not perfect – one noticed some rushed notes and insecure intonation (especially in the octaves) – but importantly, he did succeed in conveying the emotional intensity of the work. The first movement suffered at times from a sluggish tempo and the orchestra seemed rather subdued, but things brightened in the slow central movement, where Kraggerud showed genuine warmth and lyricism. In the lively last movement, the soloist and orchestra finally found rapport and there was a lovely moment when Kraggerud joined in spontaneously with the tutti violins. Kraggerud was given an enthusiastic reception and intriguingly, he played his own composition as an encore – a touching piece for solo violin in the style of Ysaÿe.

Earlier, the concert opened with a buoyant account of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The work is based on fairly obscure Weber pieces (including an oriental theme from his incidental music for Schiller’s play Turandot), but from such fragments Hindemith created a brilliant showcase for orchestral virtuosity. Petrenko kept a tight rein over the orchestra but gave flexibility to the woodwind solos: in particular, the guest principal flute Juliette Bausor made a distinguished contribution. The mellow harmony of the brass section of the Philharmonia also stood out in the second movement. All in all, it seemed a lively workout for the whole orchestra.

The highlight of the afternoon was undoubtedly the Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninov, composed late in his life in the USA. This is a work Petrenko has recorded with his Liverpool orchestra to great acclaim, so it was no surprise that he was totally in control of both the large picture and the details. His interpretation of the work is not as a grand Romantic nostalgic work, but as a set of dynamic and vibrant dances, and he conducted with both clarity and urgency.

What I found particularly impressive about this performance was the range of dynamics and tonal colours Petrenko drew out of the Philharmonia forces. The performance was powerful but never heavy, and there was some beautifully soft playing, especially by the strings. Here too, contributions from the wind principals, especially saxophone, cor anglais and bassoon, deserve special mention. Although there was slight untidiness in the percussion towards the end, Petrenko built up a great climax and concluded a highly polished performance.

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