The closing honors at this yearʼs Prague Spring Festival were given to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which served up a double dose of D minor – Brahmsʼ Piano Concerto no. 1 and Dvořákʼs Symphony no. 7. A favorite at the festival after conducting the Czech Philharmonic in the opening concert three years ago, Vasily Petrenko had two opportunities this year to show what he can do with his own orchestra.

Vasily Petrenko and Paul Lewis © Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý
Vasily Petrenko and Paul Lewis
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Packed houses at Obecní dům were particularly eager to hear how Petrenko and his ensemble would handle the Czech repertoire, which has a significant place in the orchestraʼs recent history. For ten years starting in 1987, the orchestra was led by Czech conductor Libor Pešek, who brought it to Prague Spring in 1993 for an historic occasion – the first time in the festivalʼs history that a non-Czech orchestra played the opening concert. Pešek was succeeded by Slovak conductor Petr Altrichter, who continued to shape a Central European sound and repertoire that is still part of the orchestraʼs character. Indeed, in a press conference before the two concerts, Petrenko said that being in Prague was “like coming home” for his players.

That was clear in their performance of the suite from Janáčekʼs From the House of the Dead on the first night. The players understand the composerʼs idiom on a level that most foreigners do not, with the folk spirit infused in the melodies and seamless handling of the abrupt transitions in tone and tempo. The overall sound was a bit soft around the edges, and built to a symphonic grandeur that seemed out of proportion to the subject matter. Otherwise, Petrenko showed a deft touch with a rarely heard work. 

The conductor works on a large canvas and likes his brass, an approach that was not a very good fit with Ten Early Songs by Berg, sung by Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson. Her bright, radiant rendition of musical love letters that the composer wrote to the woman who would become his wife was often lost in the swells of orchestral sound. But the high volume, and Petrenkoʼs fingertip control of dynamics, produced a superb version of Elgarʼs Symphony no. 1. Glistening strings gave the piece an elegant gloss, and attention to fine details made it sound like every bar of music had been carefully crafted. With Petrenkoʼs Slavonic touch, the symphony sounded fresh and had something original to say.

The balance between orchestra and soloist was much better in the Brahms piano concerto, which opened the second night with Paul Lewis at the keyboard. Even toned down a bit, the orchestra sounded buoyant and energetic, providing alternately lively and contemplative backdrops. Lewis, however, was uncharacteristically flat, turning in a technically proficient but colorless performance. Particularly against the sensitive, resonant work of the orchestra, his piano lines lacked depth and personality. There were some noteworthy moments – delicate interplay with the woodwinds in the first movement, fluent handling of the cadenza in the third. Otherwise, it a was an uninspired showing by an accomplished player.

Petrenkoʼs fondness for grand gestures came to the fore again in the Dvořák symphony, which he brought to life in dimensions better-suited for Mahler or Wagner. But his genius lies in being able to do that without neglecting details, which in this case were rich and colorful, giving the music a ringing vibrancy. His tempi were also quite good, if a bit fast in the final movement, which ended in a magnificent blast of celestial horns – a fitting send-off for Dvořák and the festival.

Standing tall and waving his arms like wings on the podium, Petrenko strikes both a commanding and sublime figure, qualities that are reflected in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonicʼs sound. The work that heʼs done in nine seasons with the orchestra is impressive, and if the Czech music that they brought to Prague Spring had British and Russian strains woven in – well, thatʼs what a good international festival is all about.