Intriguing Elgar from Vasily Petrenko

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Elgar: Simon Trpčeski (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 18.10.2012 (MB)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, ‘Emperor’
Elgar: Symphony no.1 in A-flat major, op.55

Sir Colin Davis remains in recovery from a recent illness, so Vasily Petrenko stepped in to conduct this concert, the programme unchanged. Petrenko’s way with Beethoven and Elgar was certainly very different from what one would have expected – and doubtless heard – from Davis, but there was much to intrigue, especially in Elgar.

From the outset of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, there was no doubt that Petrenko intended to make full use of the capabilities of the LSO – no fashionable scaling down here – just as Simon Trpčeski would employ the full resources of his Steinway. The tempo was fast, faster than my general preference, but that is neither here nor there; it suited the performance, which was very much of the here and now rather than a probing of Wagnerian metaphysics. A muscular exposition tutti did not detract from characterful woodwind playing. Petrenko’s reading was rhythmically insistent, very different from the more flexible and harmonically-grounded Beethoven one hears from, say, Daniel Barenboim, or would have done from Furtwängler. It was highly martial, perhaps too much so at times, but I was intrigued to hear Beethoven’s score here more as a successor to Mozart at his most public (the 25th Piano Concerto, rather than the 22nd, despite the key), albeit with greater menace, or indeed to the military brass interventions in Haydn’s late masses, inevitably putting one in mind ultimately of precedents for the Missa solemnis. Trpčeski’s performance was finely shaded, always clear, notably in the cruel left-hand passagework, unfailingly even in tone. The moment of return was a high point, piano and orchestra together veritably blazing. A songful, intermezzo-like character was granted to the slow movement, clearly informed by experience in Romantic (post-Beethoven) piano concertos: Schumann, even, more controversially, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. I was not entirely convinced, but it made me think, and it was a welcome luxury to hear such warmth from the deep-pile LSO string section. The finale was taken at a fast tempo too, but was carried off well. Trpčeski voiced those extremely difficult chords in the opening bars to perfection, though there were occasional examples later on when heavy-handedness intervened. There were a couple of odd instances of slowing down – by the pianist and later echoed by the conductor so they would seem to have been the products of conscious decisions. That bassoon solo emerged unscathed from the preceding orchestral onslaught.

After the interval, Elgar’s First Symphony opened arrestingly with deliberate tread, almost as if it were the glorious celebration of a hero passed (a successor, perhaps, to Siegfried, or even to the hero of the Eroica?), sad yet defiant. The main Allegro, by contrast, opened in fast and furious fashion, quite un-Boult-like, though its fragility would soon be exposed. The score often sounded closer to Tchaikovsky than Brahms, especially at its most frenetic, the LSO brass ablaze. This was an unabashedly Romantic reading, which yet did not preclude uncertainty, above all at the close. The second movement – I suppose one ought not to call it a scherzo, since Elgar did not – also opened furiously, by turn thereafter balletic and martial. (I could almost imagine it danced.) It was quite different from any performance I could recall, yet clearly from conviction rather than a desire to ‘say something new’ for the sake of it. I found it exhilarating. The slow movement emerged with almost Mahlerian intensity from the strings, the warmth and generosity of their vibrato throughout a standing rebuke to the Norringtonian tendency. Echoes of Wagner – sighing phrases, choice harmonic shifts, baleful English horn (Christine Pendrill) – were sung freely. Instability was never far from the surface, despite the often ravishing beauty of the performance. Though the opening of the finale was well-nigh obliterated by a barrage of coughing, it emerged from bronchial envelopment with a nice sense of fantastical revisiting: a tribute to Strauss? The Allegro recaptured earlier fury, yet quite rightly seemed to struggle; ‘hard-won’ would be misleading, since it was never clear that victory had been attained. Astonishingly, even today, Elgar sometimes needs to be rescued from provincial devotees, who would confine him to the ranks of merely ‘English composers’. In this fine performance, he was triumphantly, which is in another sense also to say equivocally, rescued.

Mark Berry