As has become common, this concert had a title: “An Heroic Journey”. Not that Beethoven’s Eroica was on the programme, or, if we were to take the noun as seriously as the adjective, Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica. But doubtless the programme is devised first, and the marketing folk come up with the title afterwards, or at least one hopes it is that way round. Instead we had two works which could well be called heroic, but in different ways; Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben – “A Hero’s Life”.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

Certainly this wonderful concerto begins in a mood of heroic struggle, with a violent eruption from the timpani, and a strident and angular opening theme. The balm of the second subject here only briefly interrupted this growling turbulence. It seems this introduction is tricky to bring off in performance, and Brahms used to get the blame, back in the days when he was accused of weak orchestration. True for this Romantic storminess he deploys a very classical orchestra, with pairs of woodwinds and trumpets (and, this being Brahms, four horns). If the RPO did not execute it with perfect tidiness, that was of small account compared to their capture of the brooding, unsettled atmosphere, responding to the violent slashes of Vasily Petrenko’s baton with plenty of attack. Better some risk in the approach than a caution that neuters the work’s power. The orchestral playing soon settled into its compelling narrative and Denis Kozhukhin’s playing was exceptionally fine throughout. He has power and technique to spare – some of the trills that litter this movement were as rattling thunder – but there was much delicacy and poetry on offer in the many lyrical episodes.

The composition of this concerto was an heroic journey in itself, taking four years and with earlier incarnations as a work for two pianos and then a symphony, before morphing into a piano concerto, all during the period when Brahms’ friend and mentor (and hero) Robert Schumann attempted suicide and endured his inexpressibly sad decline in the asylum at Endenich. Surely much of that gets into the moving Adagio. Brahms wrote over his sketch of the opening the words Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dominus. (Dominus, in the sense of ‘Master’, was a term those in his circle used to address Schumann).

This account was close to perfect in tempo and feeling, from both piano and orchestra. The classical restraint of Kozhukhin’s metrical precision actually added to the touching pathos. Without pause Kozhukhin launched into the final Rondo, each episode of which was splendidly characterised. The fugal passage was especially ear-catching from the strings, in its quietly creeping Tom 'n Jerry manner, before the pianist demonstrated just how piquant his decorated version was. The coda let loose its tight succession of exchanges between soloist and band, and this formidable work completed its heroic journey. The tiny encore of Grieg’s Arietta, which Kozhukhin announced to an alarming squeal from (I assume) one of that composer’s compatriots, was as evanescent and inconsequential as the concerto had sounded mighty and enduring.

From the truly heroic to the mock heroic, for surely Ein Heldenleben in which the hero is the composer, bewilders no-one who was once required to study Pope’s Rape of the Lock. Strauss himself gives a clue in the jocular tone of his remarks about it: "It is entitled 'A Hero's Life', and while it has no funeral march, it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism”. And that, again in reference to the original dedicatee of the Eroica, Strauss found himself "no less interesting than Napoleon".

There was no denying the Falstaffian self-importance of the initial swagger in the first theme, and Petrenko built the big opening paragraph with symphonic breadth and stirring impetus. No critic hears the second section (The Hero’s Adversaries) with equanimity perhaps, the mean-spirited carping of the critics in the broken woodwind phrases a bit close to the bone. But Art took revenge, since this is among the duller passages in the work. In fact the central sections of the work rather outstay their welcome, as the ensuing courtship scene with its repetitious violin solo further demonstrates. Nor could one blame the performers – few can have performed that solo as well as leader Duncan Riddell did here. But real inspiration returns with The Hero’s Works of Peace, where Strauss so skilfully weaves a tapestry of his earlier greatest hits – the horns blazing eloquently in the Don Juan theme. The closing section too is vintage Strauss, and, it must be said, it was vintage RPO. The relationship with Petrenko – the RPO’s Music Director Designate from August 2020, and Music Director from 2021 – is still new, but on this evidence full of promise.