The most profound note in this concert was struck before it started, as Vasily Petrenko spoke passionately to the attentive audience about music, conflict and anguish. As a half-Ukranian musician who grew up in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), he traced the peculiar relevance of a concert that had been planned long before recent events shook the world. The connections between Dmitri Shostakovich and British music are well known (they even extend to Andrew Lloyd Webber: on one of his last visits to London the Russian composer went twice to see Jesus Christ Superstar) so there was a logic, for this concert in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s ‘Great British Music’ series, for the centrepiece to be his First Cello Concerto.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Mark Allan

Petrenko in Shostakovich is always a special event and this hard-driven performance was no exception. The RPO played for its inspirational music director like a band possessed, while the solo part was articulated with finesse and drama by Pablo Ferrández. The gifted young Spaniard threw himself into the hectic, eclectic score with virtuosic abandon. Together, their account of opening Allegretto strutted in genial lockstep, the strings ideally balanced against the solo cello.

The central movements play for nigh on 20 minutes and are a different spread of zakuski. Gone was the opening movement’s regimented rhythm; instead, Ferrández played the cello’s aching first melody as though from his soul while strings explored the discord beneath. An insistent solo horn (Alexander Edmundson) added a hint of the surreal to what felt like a dreamscape – a stream of unconsciousness, perhaps. The cellist’s six-minute Cadenza, a movement in its own right, built on this mood and grew into something febrile and ultimately frantic before Shostakovich’s perfunctory finale restored order. It was an extraordinary performance.

Pablo Ferrández
© Mark Allan

Earlier, Petrenko had given Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra the ride of its life. It’s not just the speeds that impressed but the inflections he found in this familiar showpiece. When the flutes piped up with the first variation you’d swear Tchaikovsky was in the room. So he continued until the fastest fugue imaginable tested his players’ mettle. They passed with flying colours, rhythmically impeccable with only the occasional scrambled note. This was a Young Person’s Guide for the thrill seeker in your life.

In Walton’s First Symphony, the musical parallel that sprang to mind was less Tchaikovsky than Sibelius; but only at first. Petrenko propelled the opening material, awash with chilly ostinato figures, with vitality and urgency until a more savage voice took over. The shock of this discordant violence was defibrillated, by the conductor’s stark way with Walton’s hairpins. By the end the mood had swung into an emphatic terror such as I have not previously heard in this work.

Walton’s second movement, a Scherzo he impishly characterised as con malicia (with malice), flew by in a kaleidoscope of colours, to be supplanted by a slow movement that Petrenko interpreted forcefully through the uneasy peace of a conclusion that resembled the end of a bad night’s sleep. After that, neither the firebrand conductor nor his blazing orchestra could persuade me that the finale is anything but a let-down. It spins a lot of notes but they’re just the means to an end – or to the end: a big, banging, applause-bait climax. The audience duly delivered.

****1