Vasily Petrenko Impresses in Rachmaninov but not in Stravinsky

12/02/2015

Stravinsky, Rachmaninov: Jorge Luis Prats (piano), Anna Samuil (soprano), Daniil Shtoda (tenor), Andrei Bondarenko (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 11.2.2015 (AS)

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
The Bells, Op. 35

 

The urgent, upwardly surging phrase that begins Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements very much sets the tone for the first movement if not the whole work and it was encouraging to hear Vasily Petrenko conduct this stark opening call to attention with vehement energy. If only he had continued along the same path. But immediately tension sagged as the conductor now adopted a basic tempo that was simply too fast for the highly charged character of the movement to emerge. The music should have a sense of heavy mass, of effort being expended on its progress, and a feeling of violence and struggle. Of this there was nothing in Petrenko’s conducting. Not only was it a matter of badly judged tempo, but errant characterisation. The conductor made Stravinsky’s inspiration sound like ballet music, spiced with intriguing oddities of rhythm. Instead of providing strong, emphatic beats, he despatched the music with flicks of the wrist, wagging head movements and wriggling body movements, as if he were conducting a dance band.

It followed therefore that the middle movement, which should provide a period of repose after the turbulence of what has gone before, failed to make its desired effect, and only sounded good-naturedly pretty. Petrenko even failed to generate much tension in the last movement, which should register as an urgently expressive statement, but which merely sounded busy in his hands. At the end of the work atmosphere in the hall was low, and applause was routine. What a shame that those who were hearing this great work for the first time will have been given such an inadequate impression of it.

Fortunately the evening’s music making immediately attained a much higher level. Jorge Luis Prats is an old-fashioned pianist in the best sense. In the Rachmaninov concerto he seemingly just let the music flow through him to provoke an immediate and individual response. Only the mechanical process of producing the right notes seemed to have been pre-planned; everything else seemed utterly spontaneous – to striking effect. His playing was rich, powerful, fluent and aristocratic in nature. Prats took the slow movement carefully and lovingly: the tempo was basically slow, but the phrasing was magical. A quality of improvisation was particularly apparent in the finale, where exciting virtuosity was combined with rare poetry in the quieter passages. All credit to Petrenko and the orchestra for their efficient, responsive collaboration.

 The concert, one of several in the LPO’s series Rachmaninoff [sic] Inside Out, ended with the composer’s four part choral work The Bells, which sets a Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. From childish delight in the silvery bells of snow sleighs in the first movement, the work then portrays a curiously muted evocation of marriage and wedding bells, then alarm bells, and finally funeral knells. The London Philharmonic Choir has a high proportion of young singers (though it needs a few more tenors, like most choirs). Its fresh, clear tone quality was a delight, and it sang with much character and high expertise – even to the extent of essaying the Russian text.

 In the opening movement the tenor soloist, Daniil Shtoda, sang attractively but was rather deficient in voice projection, for he was too easily overcome by the chorus and orchestra. Anna Samuil’s soprano had an easier task in the quieter second section, and her Slavic tones evoked just the right atmosphere. In the third movement the chorus was allowed to shine by itself, and was joined in the last by the robust baritone of Andrei Bondarenko. Throughout the work (and throughout the concert) the LPO played to its customarily high standard and Petrenko was clearly more at home in Rachmaninov than Stravinsky, for his conducting seemed just about ideal for the work in its combination of energy, strength and warmth of expression.

 

Alan Sanders

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