Wednesday, March 23, 2022
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Guest Reviewer, David Gutman
Having stepped away from his prestigious Russian post as artistic director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra (long associated with Evgeny Svetlanov), Vasily Petrenko may now have extra time to burnish his credentials as a champion of British music. Not that he needs it to judge from such recent local outings as a translucent Vaughan Williams Fifth, given by the Royal Philharmonic under strict COVID rules in June 2021, or their Walton Johannesburg Festival Overture, a bête noire of William Glock’s revealed as a minor masterpiece in November 2021. The team lately completed a US tour with Britten, Elgar and Holst in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Once again that mysterious combination of charisma and precise stick technique would seem to have garnered acclaim as well as eliciting a clarity and focus not always associated with ‘our’ repertoire. So it was tonight. The vaguely silly strapline applied to the concert and to the RPO’s Great British Music series as a whole – “Freedom, Hope, Adventure” – took a back seat to events in Ukraine in the conductor’s now customary opening homily. These are well-intentioned rather then carefully fact-checked.
Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell was the best fit for that original Brexity marketing concept. The Theme was slow and detailed, the Fugue almost too fast. The conductor presented the score as a sequence of disparate character portraits rather than insisting on its cumulative power.
It seemed unlikely that the Shostakovich Concerto would face cancellation (the recent fate of Tchaikovsky’s 1812), however presumptuous and facile our assumptions about the composer and the political nature of his creative stimuli. The work was composed during what passed for good times in the Soviet era, except that Shostakovich was trapped in an unhappy second marriage with Margarita Kainova. Its technical challenges reflect the close involvement of Mstislav Rostropovich, a friend and a master rumoured to have committed the score to memory in four days. In Pablo Ferrández’s considered interpretation the Concerto’s frenetic, obsessive outer movements were trumped by the heartfelt lyricism of the Moderato and cadenza at its heart. Ferrández’s formative teacher was Natalia Shakhovskaya who studied with Rostropovich, but it may have been his own connection with Anne-Sophie Mutter that came through in the ferocious opening Allegretto. Here the cellist was at pains to explore its every nook and cranny, separately articulating every scrunch. Nothing was taken for granted yet the effort seemed a little misdirected given that the movement’s four-note DSCH-derived main theme is continually subjected to composerly distortion. Like almost all post-Rostropovich soloists, Ferrández struggled to be heard and the positive accompaniment – some notably noisy jet-black timpani – did little to preclude the usual wasp-in-a-jam-jar effect. The slow movement on the other hand was glorious, almost silencing those audience members equipped with bottles to drop, cellophane to crinkle and throats to clear. The cellist’s website carries Mutter’s imprimatur “Pablo Ferrández is truly special. Great sound, very refined vibrato, flawless left and right hand and a true musician.” She’s not wrong although one felt the Shostakovich might not have been quite his piece. Ferrández offered an encore, not a Ukrainian folksong but something similar, Pablo Casals’s Song of the Birds which also happens to be on his suitably soulful Spanish–Russian fusion album released last year on Sony Classical. The personable thirtysomething is plainly destined for superstardom.
And so on to Walton’s masterpiece where André Previn’s famous live and recorded performances with the LSO (several newly accessible on YouTube) set an impossibly high bar. Previn’s own period at the helm of the RPO yielded a decent enough concert performance and re-recording but a late assignation with the LSO in June 2005 reasserted the superiority of the old team. Lacking the tonal power and heft of that ensemble, Petrenko’s RPO nonetheless impressed in a work the conductor had previously given in London with the LPO in March 2019. Their biggest revelations were confined to the inner movements. The Scherzo taken at whirlwind speed was supremely articulate, the slow movement plumbing real depths as well as revealing unsuspected lines of argument and points of colour. The Finale went wonderfully well too even if a fractionally over-hasty basic tempo, presumably designed to keep pomp at bay, did not always leave room for Walton’s harmonies to register. The pathos of the ‘last post’ en route to ultimate apotheosis went for very little – too loud, at least from my privileged seat in the stalls. Though greeted by enthusiastic applause the first movement had taken time to settle, firm rhythmic propulsion, usually Petrenko’s strongest suit, not always quite there, lyrical outbursts indulged, possibly overmuch. Which is where we came in.
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell/The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34
Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat, Op.107
Symphony No.1 in B-flat minor