Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Romanian Athenaeum, Strada Benjamin Franklin 1-3, Bucharest 030167, Romania

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

A cultural and spiritual rallying point of Romanian life since it opened in 1888, the neoclassical Athenaeum, a European Heritage site, home of the George Enescu Philharmonic, is a small venue seating 800. But its inspirational ambience and admired sonic and emotional acoustic is legendary, Costin Petrescu’s seventy-five metre fresco circling the auditorium tracing two millennia of Romanian history from Trajan to the România Întregită post-1918. A place of space, air and imagery, inviting dreams. Touring for the first time since the pandemic, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra opened this late-afternoon concert with the same Enescu C-major Suite programmed by Gergiev in the 4000-capacity Grand Palace Hall less than twenty-four hours earlier: unexpectedly close proximity festival planning. A markedly different style of conductor, more obviously in touch with his musicians, Vasily Petrenko, commencing his first season as RPO music director, convinced in places where Gergiev and his Munich band didn’t, bringing a youthful energy and lightness of touch to the outer movements and a keener sense of Baroque pastiche generally. The RPO (standard layout, cellos and basses right of podium) spoke with character and clarity, kettledrums and percussion brightly focussed, woodwind and brass keenly personalised, strings providing a consistently secure, warm reference point (incisively reined unison attacks, too). Longer overall than Gergiev’s account – twenty-eight minutes against twenty-four – it didn’t feel like it, Petrenko making a colourful case for a score not without issues.

Given her distinctive beauty of intonation and tone, precision of line, and invariably elegant bowing action, Julia Fischer’s Mendelssohn is always good to hear. Nothing forced, glittering but unexaggerated bravura, long-felt expression, everything placed. With Petrenko attentively supporting, she seemed keen in this performance to want to play the lyric card, her first entry nearer pianissimo than piano, intimately projected. Very beautiful, ascending to a translucent finish, the driven, ice-queen of old in relaxed, giving form, wearing her authority graciously. Preceding her encore – Paganini’s final Caprice, blistering brilliant – in disarmingly bantering mood, too.

Back in the day, collecting hard to come by Melodiya LPs of the classics – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms – was an obsession of mine. How the Soviets approached things, distinct from Europeans or Americans, was an instructive learning curve. Sometimes so wayward or inflated as to unsettle (Mravinsky, Svetlanov); occasionally so ‘period’ repeat-conscious as to surprise (Barshai). Petrenko’s handling of the mainstream repertory – grounded in St Petersburg – hasn’t always convinced. But now in his mid-forties, with stints in Liverpool and Oslo behind him, it’s another story. Large-span thinking and Romantic theatre infused Brahms Four. Initially nothing hasty – the emphasis on expansive paragraphing, a love of tonal balance and rhythmic pointing, the value of cadence. Latterly explosively physical – glorying in a galloping giocoso third movement (more Presto than Allegro), and a passacaglia Finale homing in on the energico e passionato element (the current surging rather than dragging). Reminding of golden times past, the RPO, Fischer tucked away at the back of the violins, responded classily, playing with style and verve, at one with Petrenko’s communicative body language, eye contact, and clear beat. No shortage of temperature or grandeur. For encore, ‘Morning Mood’ from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt – lusciously bloomed in best Beecham ‘lollipop’ tradition.