The debate whether Schubert is a Classical or Romantic composer is an ongoing one, but on his return the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate Vasily Petrenko made his view crystal clear. The Allegro of the Symphony no. 5 in B flat major was essentially over brisk, with a vivacity completely unexpected. Petrenko drove the movement with aggression from the strings, balanced against the more delicate woodwinds. It was clear that Petrenko was focussing on the beauty of the winds and their lines rather than the more rhythmically buoyant strings. The crisp string articulation that coloured the first movement prevailed in the following Andante con moto, which had more of a gentle jog than walking speed momentum.  The third movement had two boldly contrasting sections, the opening Minuet was a little abrasive whilst Petrenko celebrated the more pastoral Trio. The Allegro vivace final movement again pushed Schubert’s tempo direction to the limit, but the reasoning only became clear at the end of the evening. 

Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Mahler’s mighty Fifth Symphony followed after the interval. The acerbic darkness that had coloured Schubert's Fifth was nothing compared to his execution of it here. Petrenko placed the horns in the choir stalls, behind the percussion, which initially seemed strange. Through the work, the role they play could be celebrated in all its glory and seemed an act of genius. From the opening trumpet call of the Trauermarsch, there was again no ambiguity to Petrenko’s vision. This work was to be treated with the same tonal palette as the Schubert. 

The sheer volume of the opening would have been enough to waken the dead and beckon them from their graves, communicated with intensity and power. An angular second movement continued in a similar vein, but with pristine rhythmic clarity. Occasionally there were some balance issues in which the brass – trombones especially, overpowered the strings. The direction of Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz (Violently agitated. With greatest vehemence) was taken literally, the emotional impact being comparable to a sledgehammer to the heart, brutally devastating. The Scherzo third movement brought a complete change of mood, brighter, but the heavy clouds that brought formidable apprehension to the first two movements never strayed far from the horizon. Tranquility followed in the Adagietto, which had the most breathlessly hushed opening, almost inaudible, unfolding with dignity. Finally Petrenko brought the much needed jollity to the Rondo finale in which an uplifting beauty and radiance shone to the heavens. 

The Schubert and Mahler appeared to be part of a bigger whole, with an overarching theme. These were not just two unrelated fifth symphonies, put together to make a balanced programme, the Schubert was a stepping stone, a prelude and then an equal partner to the Mahler. Petrenko linked these two works, with their periodic nods to polite Viennese society, as one greater structure. The fact they were separated by decades was completely irrelevant to the musical narrative he created from one composer to the other. 

Remembering Petrenko’s performance several years ago as part of his Mahler cycle, it was clear this was an interpretation that has matured considerably, finding greater nuances and an altogether greater emotional depth. The playing of the RLPO was electrifying and, combined with the formidable presence Petrenko has in his Liverpool home, it certainly made for a memorable experience.