Wednesday, August 4, 2021, Royal Albert Hall, London
Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 7.30 p.m.
From Liverpool to London … having exchanged one Royal ensemble for another, Vasily Petrenko is now music director (from the First of this month) of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Each of the three works featured here found their respective composers acknowledging the past.
In his Tallis Fantasia (1910), Ralph Vaughan Williams took his musical cue from Thomas Tallis (1505-85) for a mystical masterpiece designed for a cathedral setting, Gloucester to be precise, so the Royal Albert Hall may be considered as being along the right lines acoustically. The strings of the RPO (whether foreground, distant or quartet) where in fine form tonally and dynamically even if Petrenko’s approach was initially rather cool and formal, if blossoming and becoming more radiant/ecstatic as it progressed.
If perhaps without the box-office appeal of his ‘Italian’ and ‘Scottish’ Symphonies, Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ is every bit as good. It incorporates the ‘Dresden Amen’ (as Wagner would in Parsifal) and Martin Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’ (with its J. S. Bach association). Dramatic, lilting, eloquent and uplifting, Mendelssohn’s misnumbered Fifth Symphony received a performance that did it proud (using the original “larger” score advised Petrenko), although a little more impetuosity in the first movement would have been welcome (cf. Maazel’s Berlin recording) even if symphonic growth was impressive, so too felicitous detailing and shaping. Woodwinds beguiled in the second movement, intimate strings similarly in the third, and the Finale (via a magical flute solo from Emer McDonough) danced infectiously before becoming imposing, avoiding bombast.
As centrepiece, Ottorino Respighi’s Concerto gregoriano (1921), a violin concerto that incorporates Gregorian Chant and medieval modes; Respighi anyway was also interested in Italian Renaissance music (hence his three sets of Ancient Airs and Dances). The Concerto, very different to the widescreen Technicolor of his Roman Trilogy (the orchestration is sober by comparison), finds Respighi in meditative mood, if with no lack of atmosphere. The writing for violin is lyrical and expressive, played with honeyed tone and ecclesiastical intensity by Sayaka Shoji, not least in the movement-linking cadenza, if only to take us to similarly reflective music, which tends to also dominate the Finale, its initial virility something of a red herring, with the grandiose fortissimo conclusion coming across as out of keeping and proportion.
Despite committed and well-prepared advocacy from these performers, it’s not difficult to understand why Concerto gregoriano is relatively neglected. (I wonder if Shoji plays Menotti’s more-rewarding Violin Concerto.) Her pizzicato/bowed encore was courtesy of Ysaÿe, a movement from Sonata IV.