Vasily Petrenko, the youthful chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, made an exciting debut with The Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday evening at Blossom Music Center in two stylistically very different works: Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, K491, with the equally impressive French pianist David Fray, and Sergei Rachmaninov’s lushly romantic Symphony no. 2 in E minor. Petrenko proved master of these diverse works.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

The Piano Concerto no. 24 is considered to be one of Mozart’s most complex concertos, and was admired by both Beethoven and Brahms. It was completed in 1786, in close proximity to the composition of his opera The Marriage of Figaro. The opera is a comedy; the concerto is much darker. The first movement is in traditional sonata form. It was apparent from David Fray’s first entrance that this performance was going to be refined, with liquid clarity of piano tone. His sound was clear and light, but not musically superficial. Indeed, the concerto is not bombastic, and the subtlety was likely lost across the vast expanses of the Blossom Music Center pavilion and out to the large crowd seated on the lawn. Mozart did not compose a cadenza for the first movement – he would have improvised it. The program did not specify whose cadenza Fray used; among others, Brahms and Busoni each wrote one. The stylistic characteristics of Fray’s cadenza were Romantic and, although it gave David Fray the chance to show his technical skill, it was quite at odds with the elegant nature of the rest of the movement.

The second movement was especially beautiful in its expressively aria-like melodic line. There were a few times that Fray might have lingered a bit more on some phrases. The clarity of the orchestral accompaniment never swamped the piano sound. The wind players were especially beautiful in the ensemble.

After the somber nature of the first movement and the crystalline clarity of the second movement, the third movement theme and variations were comparatively perky, almost march-like at the marked Allegretto tempo. Throughout the entire concerto, David Fray showed no fear of the understated technical challenges of the concerto, even maintaining a dynamic that was primarily on the soft end of the spectrum. His reading perhaps did not try for the philosophical grandeur of, say, Mitsuko Uchida, but his youthful insights were fresh and persuasive.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s very popular Second Symphony is big, both in length (almost an hour) and musical conception, with big tunes, big climaxes, and repetition of musical materials designed to extract every bit of drama. It was the antithesis of the Mozart concerto we had just heard. The symphony was completed in 1907, with a St Petersburg première in early 1908. The Cleveland Orchestra’s long association with the work goes back to 1920, when it was conducted by the orchestra’s first conductor Nikolai Sokoloff; in 1928, Sokoloff collaborated with Rachmaninov to create a version cut in length by a third that was used for The Cleveland Orchestra to record the symphony on twelve 78rpm discs. How amazing it would be to compare The Cleveland Orchestra’s sound of 1928 – pre-George Szell – to the blazing brilliance of this performance!

Vasily Petrenko’s grasp of Rachmaninov’s grand symphonic architecture was complete. He knew how to milk the melodies and their development to maximum effect, yet the pace was often propulsive, not mannered or self-indulgent. It was an honest reading of a beloved warhorse. Even if the music is highly manipulative of the listener’s emotions, it would take a hard-hearted audience member not to be touched by Rachmaninov’s technicolor masterpiece.