Vasily Petrenko used his baton like a piratical rapier to galvanise the London Philharmonic violins in their flourishes of derring-do at the start of Berlioz’ Overture Le Corsaire. And the brilliance was in the quicksilver contrasts, the lightness and wit of inflection which lent a piquancy to the panache of this great concert opener. The arrival of the main theme – tantalisingly delayed – was almost balletic in its vivacity and even the final trumpet-led assault suggested a Byronic hero as French as he was feral. One of Petrenko’s great strengths as a conductor lies with the sharpness of his characterisation.
It was there in spades for Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini where wit and wiliness take the old variation form to great heights of ingenuity, soloist and orchestra conspiring to surprise and amaze in equal measure. Kirill Gerstein was a somewhat retiring showman in this performance, choosing nonchalance and understatement over a more demonstrative approach. Indeed he was so well “integrated” into the orchestral whole that the total effect was more piano obbligato than concerto. It’s laudable in a way that he was able to subjugate his own temperament to the razzle-dazzle of the piece but the fact is that he didn’t shine where he might have and nor did the fireworks titillate the ear as they can and should do. The first slow variation brought some lushly impressionistic work from the orchestra who were thoroughly on their toes throughout but in the great 18th variation – Andante cantabile – I missed the aura of individuality, of something personal, in what is one of Rachmaninov’s most “expensive” moments.
A year or so ago Petrenko completely blew me away with a performance of Elgar’s First Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra that demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the composer’s very particular ethos and phraseology. So I came to his reading of the Second Symphony with huge expectations. I was not disappointed – though it has to be said my initial response was one of only modified rapture. There’s a reason Elgar himself took the Allegro vivace of the first movement so briskly; he knew what he meant. The revving-up of the opening bar must act like a spring-board to the extraordinary release of energy which Elgar anticipates with his head-of-score quotation from Shelley – “Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!” But with Petrenko’s measured pacing of the symphony’s exposition (very Barbirolli-like in its expansiveness) one began to wonder the aforementioned spirit of delight would come at all. The uplift was slow to arrive.
Essentially there needs to be a corresponding drive to the fragrant impressionism of the gorgeously poetic and mysterious middle section which comes on strong like some dangerously illicit nocturnal tryst. Sensuous, curvaceous, phrasings gave this aspect of the movement a memorable languorousness – but the surrounding exhilaration was not quite there.
No matter. From then on Petrenko’s grasp of this wonderful piece was beyond reproach. The great second movement funeral march (poignantly anticipating Edward VII’s passing) brought a hushed nobility to the hall with moments like the singing oboe counterpoint in the reprise of the main melody presaging a tragic climax of swelling horns and tearful descending glissandi in the violins – all of it tempering the pomp and circumstance with something much, much more personal.
The scherzo brought quick reflexes and a dashing virtuosity and its pounding climax brought the four horsemen of the apocalypse steaming over the horizon with shocking immediacy. The percussion always peak later than you expect them to in this passage and Petrenko made dramatic capital of it – just as he did in the finale where the LPO’s marvellous first trumpet, Paul Beniston, was instrumental in nailing those tremendous releases. But it was the Wagner-infused abschied of the closing pages where the personal tone of this performance won Petrenko his honorary-Brit status. May he continue to champion this music far and wide.