The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concluded its American tour – the first such tour by an international orchestra since March of 2020 – with a heartwarmingly effective concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring much-beloved music by English composers.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Vasily Petrenko, its new Music Director, brought a clarity of chiaroscuro texture to most of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes that was a thrill to hear. The opening unaccompanied high violin lines were crystalline and luminous, with the subsequent entrances of woodwind arpeggios and brass chorale moving like dark clouds between them. Darkness was never far from the surface in this rendition, but the primary impression in the first three preludes was of depth. Foreground and background separated like the layers of a Magic Eye puzzle; the woodwind passages in the second prelude were so richly textured they were nearly tangible. The Storm did not fare as well; a fury of timpani and sawing strings, it came across as much more flattened than the previous movements. The final unison passage, while still effective, was not as shocking as it might have been had the whole movement been as palpably textured as the first three.

Kian Soltani and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Petrenko’s coloristic hand was equally sure in Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, with ravishing pianissimos and the occasional purposeful melodic statement. Unfortunately, there isn’t that much for the orchestra to do in this concerto. The cellist rarely stops playing, and responsibility for the piece’s narrative coherence rests squarely on his shoulders. Kian Soltani, while technically immaculate and gorgeous of tone, delivered the opening solo as rhapsodic rather than elegiac, and the first theme as introspective rather than desolate, and soon after that made the piece seem meandering. I have in my notes here “a young man playing an old man’s piece”. I look forward to hearing him play the concerto again in twenty years or so. (Soltani’s encore, his own arrangement of a piece from Shostakovich’s score to the film The Gadfly for solo cello with cello ensemble, was lovely.)

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The Planets, after intermission, was an unalloyed joy – I was grinning so widely at times that I wondered if I were compromising the seal on my mask! The clarity of texture that marked the Britten was evident here, too, in remarkable detail; I heard inner lines that I have never heard before. The RPO took full advantage of Carnegie Hall to display Holst’s orchestrations as a riot of color. Most importantly, though, this was the most metrically vivid performance of this work I’ve ever heard. All of the irregular meters, odd phrase lengths and shifting hypermeters were treated as part of the essential core of the piece, with downbeats, accents and phrasing perfectly calibrated, rather than just as part of the furniture. The climaxes in Mars and Uranus were made even more hugely satisfying thereby. Even the awkward syncopations and seemingly random tempo shifts in Jupiter somehow made sense; and the floating, alternating harmonies in Neptune had metric definition, while still continuing to float. (The choral group Music Sacra, led by Kent Trittle, did a lovely job with the concluding offstage vocals.)

The encore, The Dance of the Tumblers from Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden, was gilding the lily, but nonetheless well done.

****1