Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
April 29 2022
Review: William Ruff
Vasily Petrenko finds England’s soul in Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony
There are few composers who capture the spirit of their native country as completely as Ralph Vaughan Williams. Not only will you find the soul of England in his music but in his ‘London’ Symphony you will visit the capital in all its moods, from before-dawn calm to the noise and scurry of its days and nights. And perhaps even more memorably you will come face-to-face with its grandeur and beauty, catching your breath at an essence which is mystical and sublime.
You could be forgiven if you thought that only an English-born conductor could respond to this essence – but you’d be wrong. Vasily Petrenko has long been a favourite with Nottingham audiences and Friday’s performance with the RPO rendered the cheers even louder. His was a highly dramatic reading, not only full of sweeping effects from the orchestra but also studded with vivid detail and flashes of bright colour. Transitions between episodes conjuring up contrasting images of London life were managed seamlessly; the massively grand was carefully balanced against the quietly intimate; moments of startling aggression melted into visions of the sublime.
Much of the symphony’s effect comes from Vaughan Williams’ masterly orchestration, not least his use of solo instruments: the solo violin and cello in the first movement, for instance; the poignant cor anglais that opens the second – and the harps that sound the Westminster chimes. The RPO shone throughout, both as a powerful ensemble and as a team of soloists well able to apply precise colours to the overall canvas.
Pianist Boris Giltburg joined the orchestra as soloist in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto. He and Vasily Petrenko have recently recorded the work together, so their rapport was obvious. The opening movement, with its strong whiff of the military, was mightily impressive; the hymn-like piano theme of the slow movement seraphic and other-worldly; the finale exuberant and self-confident. For all its drama and technical brilliance, however, there was something rather self-effacing about their performance, as if both soloist and conductor didn’t want to intrude between Beethoven and the music. This may have given the performance a slightly detached air at times – but it didn’t inhibit the audience ovation. Giltburg responded with a Brahms Intermezzo encore – and playing of warmth and empathy.
To open their concert Vasily Petrenko led the orchestra in the Johannesburg Festival Overture by Sir William Walton, written in 1956 for the 70th anniversary of that city and full of fizz and sparkle. It has one of those jazzy tunes which become earworms after a single hearing and is especially exciting at the end when the composer throws lots of African-style percussion instruments into the mix such as maracas, castanets and rhumba sticks. The RPO’s full-throated approach (and Petrenko’s podium ballet) ensured that a good time was had by all.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
Boris Giltburg, piano