Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham. 18 April 2023. 5*****. William Ruff


Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

April 18 2023


Review: William Ruff


Red-blooded emotion, soaring melody and vivid orchestral colour

I hope that anyone with an allergy to strong emotions stayed away from this RPO concert: otherwise there wouldn’t have been enough doctors in the house to go round.

Vasily Petrenko has a well-earned reputation for wringing every drop of energy from the orchestras he works with.  He’s no stranger to the RCH podium, exciting audiences with great orchestras from Liverpool and Oslo in the past and now working his magic with the Royal Philharmonic. 

Tuesday’s concert started with Sibelius’ Finlandia, perhaps the composer’s most famous work and one whose origins in the fight for national freedom from Russia gives it new potency and poignancy.  Its growling brass, whirling strings and rousing tunes seem to grow from the Finnish landscape and the determined spirit of its people.  Its famous central melody has been widely adopted as a hymn tune with patriotic words calling for Finns to unite to fight against oppression and break ‘the yoke of slavery’.  There were no words in this RPO performance but the effect was equally rousing.  It can’t be easy to breathe new life into such a well-exercised warhorse, but Petrenko and the RPO managed it.

Finlandia is such a strong piece that there is a danger of it upstaging everything that follows.  No such problem when Bomsori Kim was the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.  In her very sparkly gold dress she made an impact even before she started playing.  When she did, it was clear that a very important decision had been taken: how fast to play the opening movement.  She and Petrenko were clearly of one mind: Tchaikovsky’s ‘moderato’ marking needs to be taken seriously for all the detail to tell.  The solo part is notoriously difficult and the violin acrobatics can sound clogged and congested if the music isn’t allowed to breathe.  It certainly sounded alive and well in this performance – and the orchestra glowed, especially in the exultant tuttis which explode so gloriously.  The slow movement’s mood could not have been a greater contrast, full of tender Slavonic sadness, the violin singing a poignant lament with muted colour palette that reaches deep into the work’s emotional core.

Music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet followed the interval.  It’s his richest and most popular ballet score – and some of it (i.e. the Apprentice theme) is very famous indeed.  If you wanted to distil Prokofiev’s musical personality into one piece, this would be it.  There is violence and angularity in music for the warring Montagues and Capulets and lots of lushly touching romanticism for the two lovers.  There is also some very sharply characterised music for the other roles, ranging from Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet’s nurse to the dignified Friar Laurence.  The whole ballet lasts 2.5 hours so a concert performance has to be selective – but narrative thrust is still vital as is razor-sharp attention to dramatic detail. 

Just a couple of examples of Petenko’s attention to telling detail.  The famous ‘Dance of the Knights’ seemed new-minted, the opening march rhythm underpinned by meaty playing from trombone, tuba, contrabassoon, bass clarinet and bass drum – and then the bold theme leaping up in the thrillingly menacing violins.  Or take the scene when Romeo arrives at the Capulet family vault to witness what he thinks is Juliet’s funeral: the way Petrenko controlled the escalation of emotion from tragic death march to frenzied desperation to the final outburst of grief that dissolves into a darkly mysterious tremolo as Romeo takes poison and the music descends into darkness. 

It was an evening of red-blooded emotion, soaring melody and vivid orchestral colour.  There was nothing half-hearted about the audience response either: the cheers for soloist, conductor and orchestra were as full-throated as they were heartfelt.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Vasily Petrenko, conductor

Bomsori Kim, violin

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