The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's return to the Royal Festival Hall produced inspired results all round. Even the audience seemed more engaged and responsive than normal and nothing about the performances was run of the mill. Vasily Petrenko used all his considered musical talent to help achieve this result.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

The concert kicked off with a traditional concert opener, the overture to Rossini’s one act opera La scala di seta. Everyone was very alert and en pointe from the off. The tricky exposed violin writing was very nimbly despatched and the woodwind had plenty of character. What stood out was the lightness and flexibility of the string sound. Not having heard the RPO live for several years, I was pleasantly surprised at how different their sound is to other London orchestras.

Haydn's Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major was lost to the world until the early 1960s, but since its resurrection it has become one of the mainstays for the cello repertoire. It is a really beautiful work, especially in the hands of Steven Isserlis, who was clearly in raptures to be on the stage performing it with the orchestra. The first movement is the most formal and ‘well dressed’. Petrenko set off at a very comfortable pace, the light string sound suiting the balance with Isserlis, who was never forced to push his tone. The ravishing slow movement was outstanding. Isserlis was so engaged with the line and shape of the melodic material that he held the whole audience in the palm of his hand. The fireworks of the finale were a joy on every level.

Petrenko has performed Vaughan Williams' Symphony no. 5 in D major before, but never in London with the RPO. This very special work is increasingly finding a place in the repertoire of leading international conductors. Even Sir Simon Rattle, who hasn’t featured RVW much in the past, gave a fabulous performance of the work at last year’s BBC Proms. Giving a brief description of the work to the audience at the start of the concert, Petrenko clearly expressed how important it is to him as a beacon of hope and beauty, much as it was when it was premiered in 1943 during a very dangerous time for the world.

Everything about the performance hit the right note. Again, the translucent strings set a foundation that wasn’t too thick and emphasised the sense of purity and mystery in the work. The first movement opened up organically to reveal the various climaxes in their full glory. Petrenko was not afraid to highlight the underlying tensions in that movement but also throughout the performance. The tricky string writing of the will-o'-the-wisp Scherzo never felt challenging and the interpolations of the woodwind and, towards the end, the angry brass were colourful and pointed. The slow movement is one of the wonders of British music. There are many layers to it, with each one opening out rapturously. Petrenko controlled every element of the movement with assurance, producing an outstandingly potent atmosphere. The opening of the finale can sound, in the wrong hands, quite lightweight after what had preceded it, but here it sounded like a natural release and, as the music progressed, Petrenko was not afraid to emphasise the drama and darker moments. However, the composer has another trick up his sleeve and the epilogue that rounds off the work was a miracle of calm and resolution.

*****