Petrenko and the RLPO: A Stylish Season-Opener in Preston

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sibelius, Arutyunyan, Mahler: Tine Thing Helseth (trumpet), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Guild Hall, Preston 9.11.12 (MC)

Sibelius:  Karelia Suite, Op. 11
Arutyunyan:  Trumpet Concerto
Mahler:  Symphony No.1 in D major

Vasily Petrenko; photo credit: Mark McNulty

Mahler’s substantial First Symphony was the centrepiece of the opening concert in the Liverpool Philharmonic’s Preston series. Given the popularity and sheer pleasure that today’s audiences gain from Mahler’s wonderful symphonic offerings it is hard to imagine that Mahler’s symphonies only started to become popular after World War two. Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko has been treating his audiences this week to this symphony, which at under an hour in length is Mahler’s shortest symphony.

I couldn’t imagine anyone in the Preston audience feeling short-changed by Petrenko’s gripping performance. The Russian maestro’s thoughtful interpretation of the opening movement contained a trance-like quality revealing a disturbing undercurrent of tension. Throughout, the augmented brass section were in superior form, so adroit at maintaining razor-sharp playing. The agile music of the Scherzo was full of surprises, containing some juicy textures. Highly affectionate, the Ländler felt expressively Viennese in flavour. On this form the string section, especially the deep and richly weighted cellos and basses, are a match for any orchestra in the country. With its lumbering and sardonic funeral march the slow movement was handled magnificently by Petrenko, resulting in cultured playing from the Philharmonic. I was struck by Petrenko’s convincing portrayal of Mahler’s klezmer band that sounded suitably tawdry and mocking. Vibrantly rustic, the woodwind contributions with their numerous nature calls were simply outstanding, supported by some attractively swooning string playing. Pounding percussion and biting, snarling brass led the way in the Finale with Petrenko generating playing of remarkable potency. Few could fail to cherish the delicious love melody played so irresistibly on the wonderful high strings. For extra impact the large bank of horns and extra trumpet and trombone stood for the conclusion. Petrenko unleashed stentorian power from the RLPO to create an earth shattering final climax. I felt privileged just to be in the hall to experience such a magnificent performance that crackled with energy and excitement.

Courtesy of Sibelius, the evening opened with a trip to Finland – to Karelia in the south eastern corner, to be more precise. Sibelius arranged the three movement Karelia suite from a musical tableau he had written for a historical pageant. Petrenko’s take on these scenes from the Karelia region painted a striking and atmospheric landscape. Right from the stirringly jubilant opening the players seemed completely attuned to the writing of the Finnish master. I’m sure that many audience members will have recognised the memorable opening theme to the Intermezzo used to introduce the ITV current affairs series ‘This Week’ (1956/78). In the Ballade the cor anglais melody was gloriously played and the joyous theme in the bright Alla marcia had great charm. Throughout Petrenko demonstrated an innate sense of controlled power obtaining assured playing from the orchestra.

Photo C 2012 Tine Thing Helseth

Like many audience members I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first hearing of the trumpet concerto by Armenian composer Alexander Arutyunyan, who died earlier this year. Completed in 1950 when Arutyunyan was twenty-nine, the Trumpet Concerto is one of the composer’s most admired works and the one that is most likely to be encountered in the concert hall. It seems that the score is often used by students as an audition piece. Stunningly dressed in a light orange, strapless gown, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth looked as good as she sounded. Any trepidation I may have held for the concerto soon vanished as Helseth made light work of this appealing and virtuosic five-section score. Uplifting and highly accessible, Arutyunyan’s writing clearly contained a myriad of influences including Armenian folk music. For some reason the flavour of Hollywood film scores seemed prominent and at times I could imagine the scene of a cowboy movie with tumbleweed blowing through a desolate Wild West Town. Helseth provided a thrilling and energising display that aptly demonstrated her superbly honed and polished technique.


Michael Cookson