It can’t be easy losing your star soprano to illness a mere two weeks before the world première of a demanding concerto written for her. What could have been a nightmare for the organisers turned instead into a most exciting evening with two sopranos for the price of one: a rising young star in her Proms debut, and one of the most intelligent Strauss sopranos of our time at the peak of her powers.

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was, however, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that carried the show, quite literally bursting forth in a blaze of sunshine with Elgar’s In the South (Alassio). Composed during a stay in the Italian Riviera, Elgar’s rarely-performed concert overture is more akin to a Straussian tone poem in scope and ambition – indeed, the heat-soaked score owes much to Don Juan, perhaps its demure Edwardian cousin. Though the score contains many fine moments it is hardly Elgar’s most concise work, with many a meandering passage. Despite this, Petrenko made the best possible case for the score, drawing out beautifully finessed playing from the entire orchestra and providing effect contrast between the imposing brass fanfares and the magical viola solo that forms the heart of the piece.

Adele Zaharia performs <i>Aurora</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Adele Zaharia performs Aurora
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Scarcely a bigger contrast from the sunny Mediterranean to Iain Bell’s Aurora can be imagined. Written for Diana Damrau, the twelve-minute vocalise was inspired by the colours and textures of the Northern Lights. The genre of the coloratura soprano concerto has its precedent in the famous Glière work, but also in countless short showpieces designed to show off the dazzling technique and range of that voice type. Bell’s soprano, however, is no pretty songbird, but instead a powerful, otherworldly force. Through the three movements, the soprano line steadily increases in difficulty and range, from the waltz-like roulades of the first movement to the staccato leaps of the central scherzo to the vertiginous runs of the finale. Despite its technical demands, Bell’s vocal writing is fluent and demonstrates his ever-increasing mastery in composing for the voice. Similarly, this work seems to represent a turning point in his orchestration, with an ever-shifting Dutilleux-esque emphasis on timbre.

Stepping in for Damrau was the young Romanian soprano Adela Zaharia, who sailed through the technical demands with confidence and ease. Like Damrau, Zaharia’s voice is darker and weightier than the typical coloratura soprano, with gorgeous shimmering tone throughout and surprising reserves of power. Only the very lowest phrases, clearly composed with Damrau’s potent chest voice in mind, eluded her somewhat. Overall, a highly accomplished debut, and with the audience’s clamorous applause one hopes that she will be heard again in London very soon.

Miah Persson and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Miah Persson and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Miah Persson, on the other hand, is no stranger to London audiences and, stepping in for the originally programmed Strauss songs, cemented her place as one of the leading Strauss sopranos. Persson’s customary nuance and exacting attention to detail came across perfectly even in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. Her pearly soprano has gained in amplitude over time, culminating in a radiant account of Zueignung. Once again, Petrenko’s orchestra proved exceptional, from the lush verdant backdrop of Das Bächlein to the whispered intimacy of Morgen.

The real showstopper, however, was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, providing an ideal showcase for Petrenko’s mix of precision and pacing. Starting nearly inaudibly, he led a propulsive, rhythmic account of the opening. Rather than the highly accented, transparent sound currently favoured in this repertoire, Petrenko opted for a thick, nearly opaque string sound that carried a wonderful visceral impact. Clarity was not sacrificed, fortunately, most notably in the razor-sharp brass fugato. Similarly, the Shostakovich parody in the fourth movement was given an appropriately vulgar and raucous account, complete with whooping brass and piercingly bright winds. Though the orchestra was understandably tired at the end of a demanding programme, a few slips and cracks did not detract from a barnstorming finale, ending the evening in a blaze of white-hot energy. A gloriously luxuriant account of Rachmaninov’s Zdes’ khorosho provided the perfect antidote, though it seemed a shame to hear the work in its orchestral guise with two excellent sopranos backstage!

*****