It often takes adventurous artists to bring musical stepchildren in from the cold, those individual instruments that rarely stand in the solo limelight: people like Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Michala Petri (recorder) and, more recently, Ksenija Sidorova (accordion) and Jess Gillam (saxophone). Indeed, had it not been for Adolphe Sax, who diced with death on a number of occasions, we would not have a whole family of saxhorns to add vibrancy to orchestral colouring today.

Jess Gillam
© Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

It then takes enterprising composers to give added voice to those Cinderella-like instruments. Such as Villa-Lobos, whose Fantasia for saxophone, three horns and strings was performed by Gillam at this concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under its music director designate, Vasily Petrenko.

Of the two solo pieces, it was John Harle’s RANT! that made the greater impression, perhaps because Harle is himself a splendid saxophonist and knows how to write effectively for the instrument. From the saxophone’s gently rhapsodic beginning through the snapped pizzicati that injected dramatic momentum down to the Romanian-influenced folk melodies towards the close this was like listening to a carnival-like celebration with plenty of capering and carousing, all testament to Gillam’s panache and pizzazz.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Villa-Lobos concerto was more sultry in tone, reflecting the southern sunnier mood: the opening Animé had contrasting Latin-inspired dance rhythms and moments of reflective repose, the central Lent featured a stylish extended solo from Abigail Fenna’s viola, and then in the concluding Très animé Gillam produced dazzling cascades of notes. When you hear such ecstatic and full-blown trills from the saxophone, your spirits are automatically raised. The RPO and Petrenko were attentive partners throughout.

Spreading the orchestra out across the platform, with quite some horizontal distance between conductor and the farthest risers where timpanist and trombones were seated, represents a considerable challenge to the ensemble as a whole. An empty Royal Albert Hall doesn’t help either. Even with six double basses there was not much heft to the string tone. More worryingly, the sound was occasionally diffuse, not only in the opening overture by Weber where articulation from wind and brass was imprecise, but also in Brahms’ E minor symphony.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Here, Petrenko took the composer at his word in terms of the markings. For him the first movement was definitely non troppo, the second moderato, and the third properly giocoso albeit without “the tiger-like energy and spring” of Tovey’s phrase. But come the Finale there was little of the energico e passionato that the composer requires. In his short introduction Petrenko stated that the work was “full of joy and anxiety, lyricism and fight”, but in this performance it was as though the taps were only half-turned on for release. It was all a little too careful in both the playing and conducting, the rhythms often merely mechanical. What I especially missed in the slow movement was any encouragement to the strings to sing their hearts out. As the thirty or so variations of the theme in the final movement progressed, I was conscious more of a series of fitful meanderings than any consistent and coherent flow, Emer McDonough’s finely poised flute solo notwithstanding. Critics of this composer, and Britten for one famously declared he could not abide “bad Brahms”, would have found sufficient evidence of the dreaded “stodge”. Yet those who answer affirmatively to the question “Aimez-vous Brahms?” know that if a performance fails to set the blood racing, something is seriously wrong.

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream