Sibelius's Finlandia may be a bit of an old stager, but give it a thoroughly committed performance and it will always come up fresh. That's just what it got from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Vasily Petrenko – Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 18 April 2023.
The repeated crescendos in the brassy opening bars positively snarled, but there was also a vein of weariness in the woodwind's and strings' answering phrases. The quick music was crisp and urgent, the big tune was all the more effective for being allowed to speak for itself, and the ending was incandescent.
South Korean violinist Bomsori Kim was the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. The orchestral introduction was tender and assertive by turns, a blend of moods picked up by Kim on her first entry. She showed an ability to dwell on details without losing the flow, and navigated without fuss every technical trick Tchaikovsky threw in her way. The cadenza, following a thrilling lead-in, was totally assured, not least those fearsome double-stopped glissandi. As the orchestra re-entered, her duet with Emer Mcdonough's flute was delightful.
The second movement, often heavy with nostalgia, here felt more like a lullaby. Kim partnered Katherine Lacy, clarinet and Mcdonough, again, with unselfconscious lyricism. The way the woodwind cohered as a unit in the final bars was another ear-catching moment.
In the Finale soloist and orchestra danced their trepak at a helter-skelter pace, with Kim again clearing the technical hurdles fearlessly, but it wasn't just the flashy stuff that impressed. The moments of hold-your-breath quietness, especially in the second movement, were just as memorable. Kim's handling of her enterprising choice of encore, Grażyna Bacewicz's Polish Caprice, was equally deft.
The second half consisted of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Rather than following the complete score's sequence of events, Petrenko and the orchestra offered the composer's Second Suite, followed by three movements from Suite No 1.
We don't hear enough about Prokofiev's mastery of orchestral colour. Though his sound-world is, of course, very different, it is on a level with that of Ravel and Debussy, and this came across time and again in Petrenko and the RPO's performance. The introduction to 'The Montagues and Capulets' (accompanying the Prince of Verona's warning of banishment to the brawling families) was piercing and doom-laden, and there were taut rhythms for the strutting Capulets at their ball. (There are no Montagues on stage at this point in the ballet, where the number is headed 'Knight's Dance' – no-one seems to know why the title was changed.) 'The Young Juliet' was all playful excitement, until the moment when she sees herself in a mirror, given genuinely touching treatment.
Friar Laurence's solo bassoon (Richard Ion) was appropriately serious without sounding pompous, offset by the headlong pace of the following 'Dance', with James Hulme's athletic oboe solo, and the woodwind again forming an impressively cohesive group as they chased each other at the end. 'Romeo and Juliet Before Parting' was full of aching tenderness, with the basses and tuba throwing an ominous shadow across the ticking sounds towards the end. The cool, formal elegance of 'Dance of the Girls With Lillies' was a pause for breath before the emotional intensity of 'Romeo at Juliet's Grave'. Petrenko and the orchestra were unsparing with the music's crushing weight of tragedy, underlined by the final expiring wisps of muted string tone.
The movements from Suite No 1 weren't the anti-climax that might have been expected. Pin-point precision in 'Scene (The street awakens)' was followed by the cheeky bravado of 'Masks', as Romeo and his friends gate-crash the Capulets' ball. Together, the two movements threw into relief the major turning-point in the story that is 'Death of Tybalt'. The hot-headed recklessness, the blind rage, and the appalling consequences all came over with full force.
Copyright © 24 April 2023