Suggesting the Possibility of Renewal

Beethoven, Brahms, Vaughan Williams and Walton from Boris Giltburg, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, heard by MIKE WHEELER


This has been Vasily Petrenko's first season as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and after their recent visit to Nottingham - Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 29 April 2022 - I'm already looking forward to the next.

They opened with Walton's Johannesburg Festival Overture, which set off at a cracking pace, with the composer's characteristic nervy energy and wit front and centre. The orchestra clearly relished the two quotations of Congolese composer Jean-Bosco Mwenda's 'Masanga' - Walton was asked to include an African tune - with maracas and rumba sticks leading the way (and Petrenko gyrating discreetly on the platform). A nod, too, to the Falstaffian presence, at an earlier point, of Kevin Morgan's tuba.

Are English-speaking audiences doing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto a disservice with the nickname 'Emperor', with its connotations of something pompous and grandiose? If so, that particular balloon was well and truly punctured by this refreshing and invigorating performance. There was definitely nothing grandiose about soloist Boris Giltburg's almost skittish opening flourishes. Throughout, his limpid command of sound and texture was a joy to hear, matched by that of the orchestra. The first movement's passage of criss-crossing up and down scales can sound ponderous; here it took flight. Giltburg can rampage with the best but, equally, knows when it's not necessary. The second movement had both a compelling intimacy and a feeling of timelessness, which never once threatened to sink into a stupor. The finale was buoyed up by sheer bounding energy, with Giltburg again at his most playful, sparring with his orchestral colleagues without trying to outdo them. I realised at one point that I had, all along, been sitting forwards in my seat, not back, which must say something.

Boris Giltburg. Photo © 2019 Sasha Gusov
Boris Giltburg. Photo © 2019 Sasha Gusov

Giltburg's encore, Brahms's Intermezzo Op 118 No 2, was beautifully poised.

Vaughan Williams played down the importance of the pictorial elements in his A London Symphony. But if it is a portrait of the city, he painted it warts and all. The light and the dark layers of its expressive world are laid out side-by-side, and Petrenko clearly understands this. The opening always reminds me of the closing lines of Wordsworth's Composed upon Westminster Bridge: 'Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!' There was a very real sense of that here, beginning in unearthly quiet and allowed to glide, like the Thames, in its own good time. There was an edge to the ebullience when it eventually broke out, and the various episodes succeeded one another with almost cinematic vividness. The quiet passage for eight solo strings was a breath-catching moment of repose, putting down a marker for the brooding meditation of the second movement. Here, the 'grey skies and secluded byways' suggested by George Butterworth had an element of starkness, while Abigail Fenna's unaffected viola solo led into an account of the central section that found a degree of restlessness at its heart, capped by a passionate climax.

Conductor and orchestra whirled through the third movement at a brisk tempo which could have been risky, but it came off, while a feel for the music's elusiveness, largely down to the strings being muted, also came across. It was no surprise that, at the start of the central section, Petrenko brought out the Petrushka echoes in the buskers' music, and the wind-down at the end of the movement was haunting,

The finale's initial outburst was shattering, while keeping plenty in reserve for later, and the succeeding march had the sense of weariness commented on by one of VW's colleagues. The approach to the big climax was inexorable, the last of its three big waves cataclysmic. In the Epilogue there was a kind of veiled sheen to the sound to match that of the scherzo. The reprise of the first movement's opening doesn't just take us full-circle. In this performance it also suggested the possibility of renewal.

Copyright © 6 May 2022 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK






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