Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, David Gutman

Following the notably translucent account of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony given by these forces under strict COVID rules in June 2021, hopes were high that A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) would be something very special. Interesting too to see programmed the Overture composed (retrospectively?) by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to preface the once madly popular Song of Hiawatha trilogy. Sparing us any kind of opening chat, Petrenko launched into the work with his customary clarity of purpose only for the content to disappoint. The main idea takes off from the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ but the argument finds no convincing trajectory and the Mendelssohnian dexterity of Coleridge-Taylor’s early chamber works is mostly missing. Dvořák in ‘New World Symphony’ guise is the obvious influence for all that the ending is straight out of Tchaikovsky or Glazunov.

Least satisfying in terms of realisation was the Beethoven, alert, bright-eyed and freshly voiced yet determined to purge the score of retrospectively imputed grandeur and profundity. The pianist has written about a lockdown year spent with Beethoven as his constant companion, yet the victory one heard in this performance was not noticeably hard won. “Beethoven’s music, as I see it now, is overwhelmingly life-affirming and certain that, despite any darkness, despite any tribulation, a new, brighter day will come.” Hm… The slow movement was decidedly matter of fact, taken at a breezy tempo which Giltburg, a superb pianist in different repertoire, must find appropriate or perhaps ‘authentic’. The first movement was full of ideas but they were localised and skittish, sometimes irritating. No doubt Glitburg’s very bright-toned Fazioli exaggerated the effect. The RPO responded with a closely aligned display of crispness and enthusiasm which however could not prevent a rather ordinary Finale from outstaying its welcome. The piece was written during the bombardment of Vienna and some weightier interpretative aftershocks would not have come amiss. By contrast, Giltburg’s encore sounded anything but prosaic (early Scriabin or one of the Rachmaninov Opus 16 Moment Musicaux? – your reviewer was found sadly wanting in identifying this but the pianist’s Twitter feed gives the latter’s Moment Musical No.2 in E-flat minor).

The main event came after the interval, mobile phones and other varieties of audience interference notwithstanding. Perhaps not everything was technically perfect. Still, the conductor used his elegant stick technique to elicit an account of A London Symphony that was never run of the mill. This was the standard concise score rather than one or other of the newly fashionable alternatives discarded by the composer along the way. The first movement was taken at a considerable lick, not always comfortable for the players but unarguably cogent and exciting enough to encourage a burst of applause (regrettable or not). The slow movement was almost perfect, profoundly moving without sentimentality, the muted strings providing genuinely quiet ppp playing of a kind rarely heard. If the viola solos can best be described as well-intentioned, the horn’s evocative rising fourths were heart-stopping. Hard to fault a Scherzo which prioritised absolute rhythmic definition over a looser evocation of Westminster Embankment and Cockney high spirits. The movement’s hushed coda effectively channeled expectant foreboding at low dynamics. Still more remarkably, the Finale felt more linear and inexorable than I have ever heard it despite incorporating a wider variety of tempo and mood than it often does, its ebbing away as glorious as the best Monet painting. As I have argued before Vaughan Williams the symphonist belongs in the mainstream of concert life, not stuck in some dingy Anglo-Saxon corridor.