Vasily Petrenko’s tenure with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is continuing to provide significant musical results and in many respects the orchestra seems entirely transformed and reinvigorated under his dynamic presence. Thematically we were given three works of corresponding scale which juxtaposed neatly, albeit giving the Royal Festival Hall a nigh-on constant high-octane atmosphere.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

Petrenko stated with the overture to Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha, written subsequent to the premiere of the cantata trilogy. Coleridge-Taylor, who after his death faded into a degree of obscurity, has increasingly returned to concert programming in recent years and there is much to enjoy in the lively and fragrant orchestral writing of the overture. Petrenko brought characteristic verve to his interpretation; tempi were quick without being rushed which allowed space for some particularly appealing playing from the woodwind over the strings in the final section. It was a lively performance of the piece which gave a flavour of what was to come when the orchestra reached the Vaughan Williams.

Before this, however, Petrenko was joined on stage by Boris Giltburg for what was a stylish and idiosyncratic performance of Beethoven's famous Emperor Concerto. No excessive hammer blows on the Fazioli for Giltburg; instead, a far lighter touch, almost a teasing of the keys, which allowed for subtle shading in the first movement. Giltburg’s playing at some point seemed on the verge of losing definition, but the thread was maintained and the result was almost akin to sound being wafted in clouds rather than individual notes, a most enjoyable effect in the first movement. The second movement was perhaps slightly weaker than the others, trading emotional depth and power for technical refinement, but Giltburg came back for the third movement with flair, delivering runs that veered from determined force to the daintiness of a porcelain tea set. Giltburg’s tendency here to flirt with pitch offered a new dynamic to the piece and his approach seemed in harmony with Petrenko, who kept his forces under military discipline and revealed some delightful textures in the strings. An unconventional approach, perhaps, but most rewarding nonetheless. A Rachmaninov encore was a pleasant tonal shift.

After our excursion abroad, back to London for Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony. Petrenko is increasingly displaying a natural affinity for British symphonic repertoire and this another excellent performance. Each movement was, in a self-contained manner, superb, but Petrenko tied them together in such a way as to bring architectural coherence to his interpretation. A real propulsion drove the orchestra in the first movement, a riot of colour, the brass giving elegant and rounded playing, the deeper strings positively glowing and the entire orchestra keeping up admirably with their Music Director’s energetic pacing. Then, a change in temperature for the second movement as we entered into an atmospheric November in Bloomsbury. Petrenko’s pacing again here was on point, giving the violins space to breathe, gently layering before rising in precise unity before ebbing away. Mischief flickered to life as the orchestra bustled into the Scherzo, a rambunctious yet lyrical interpretation which effectively evoked a night in London. Petrenko raised the tempo for the fourth movement as we reached the dramatic highpoint before leading us into a melancholy, aching finale. An excellent end to a most enjoyable evening and one which proved that Petrenko is remaking the RPO into a competitive force on the London musical scene. 

****1