Petrenko Conducts Bell in Lalo, plus a Glinka Rarity

18/06/2017

Glinka, Lalo, Rachmaninoff: Joshua Bell (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 16.6.2017. (HS)

Glinka – Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa
Lalo – Symphonie espagnole
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.1

In this week’s San Francisco Symphony concerts, conductor Vasily Petrenko devoted his usual precision and dedication to the orchestra’s first-ever performances of Rachmaninoff’s rarely heard Symphony No.1.

Rachmaninoff was 22 years old, fresh out of the conservatory, when he wrote it. He was flexing his compositional muscles, deriving all the material from a few cells that appear in the first movement, and was particularly focused on orchestration. The Leningrad-born Petrenko, chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, seemed focused on the composer’s intent, and reveled in every measure of this episodic work.

He leaned heavily on the muscular moments. Unfortunately, this made the loud parts seem wearing long before the booming, energetic Allegro con fuoco finale. At the end, after a crashing climax punctuated by the smash of a tam-tam, the music subsides into a quiet Largo, only to bloom at the end with a gorgeous, richly resonant brass chorale atop a full orchestra, which would have been marvelous – if that sound hadn’t been heard repeatedly over the past 40 minutes.

To be sure, there are marvelous sections, early indications of the sort of thing that the composer’s later works deliver more adroitly. The second movement, a soft-edged scherzo marked Allegro animato, featured dancing strings and shifting moods. A stormy middle section interrupted the slow movement, otherwise lyrical and calm. All this was carefully shaped by Petrenko, with firm command.

In Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, violinist Joshua Bell drew a colorful range of sounds from his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius. The dark, deep, rich low range reflected plenty of soul, juxtaposed against sections that extended into the violin’s highest range. After Petrenko’s stentorian opening measures, he took nearly the entire movement to achieve the contrasting lightness that carries through the rest.

Through most of the concerto, the conductor drew crisp, correct playing, deferring to Bell’s kaleidoscopic colors. The Rondo: Allegro finale finally took off, as Petrenko set a rhythmic groove that drove Bell to soar. The violinist’s breathtaking technique was in evidence, especially in the razzle-dazzle of the final, softly accompanied few measures, before the orchestra punctuated the end with a well-timed burst.

During a brief stay in Valladolid, in the Aragon region of Spain, a guitarist Glinka met inspired the composer to write Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa, using a traditional dance tune that he heard the son of a friend play on guitar. Glinka developed it into an eight-minute Sonata Allegro overture that later Russian composers would identify as a turning point in their country’s music. Receiving its first San Francisco Symphony performances, the piece made a lively and thoughtful counterpart to the Rachmaninoff and a nice contrast to the Lalo – a French composer’s take on Spanish music – which followed.

Harvey Steiman

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