An overture by Mendelssohn, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and Debussy’s La Mer. Not often does one come across these works one after the other, except maybe — because of the chronological order in which they appear — in music history textbooks. It may appear peculiar, then, that these three titles made up the programme presented by Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra under the baton of Kirill Petrenko. One ought not, however, to be too distrustful: more unusual programmes have been heard by audiences and met with genuine success. Still – to be fair – we have reasons to assume that the concert’s near sellout was mostly due to Petrenko’s involvement, together with curiosity for soloist Boris Giltburg’s rendition of Brahms’ Piano Concerto.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage was first performed in 1828, inspired by two poems by Goethe (Beethoven had set them both to music about a decade earlier, while Schubert would later turn Calm Sea into a Lied). The concert overture is structured in two main parts, a slower movement followed by a faster one, which may resemble the two-section layout of opera sinfonias; but it is rather the juxtaposition of Goethe’s poems which dictates the form of the piece. The first part initiates the listener to a static, meditative mood which is hardly perturbed by internal orchestral movements; the second part, introduced by a flute solo, is more animated and makes us partake in the ship’s journey back to shore. Despite some imperfections from the woodwind, Petrenko conducted with zealous dexterity, guiding the audience securely as the overture unfolded, drawing attention to its simple yet enjoyable allure.

After its fairly light-hearted beginning, the programme’s pièce de résistance was Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major. With no need for introductions, the work is notably one of the most demanding in the genre, its four movements and 50-minute duration being a showcase for the soloist’s virtuosity. After a timorous start, Giltburg gradually grew more confident and eventually displayed remarkable mastery. His playing maintained a certain level of nervous tension which imbued Brahms’ challenging score with underlying agitation, while still being capable of lyricism. Unfortunately, even under the guidance of Petrenko, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra sometimes seemed to struggle, some split notes and dynamic imbalances preventing the performance from being outstanding. This was particularly evident in the first half of the concerto, during which Giltburg’s apparent bashfulness and the orchestra’s uncertainties failed to achieve the nearly symphonic wholeness that is characteristic of Brahms’ writing. That notwithstanding, the performance also had highlights: the chamber-like sections of the third movement were of beautiful intensity, and the entire fourth movement was played with captivating brio.

Boris Giltburg, Kirill Petrenko and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

The concert reached its conclusion with Debussy’s symphonic tableau, La Mer. It is undeniable that the orchestra’s familiarity with the work may have played to their advantage, but Petrenko’s brilliant, enthusiastic conducting really allowed the score to shine, making it the best performed piece of the evening. Debussy’s rich and refined orchestration shimmered under the Russian conductor's touch, choreographing each sound with great control and inspiration. The result stayed trued to the composition’s sketch-like nature, all the while conveying its dynamic inner life. This earned Petrenko and the orchestra a definite success, sealed with several rounds of applause.