A Super-Charged Alpine Symphony from the RLPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Canteloube, Richard Strauss: Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Guild Hall, City of Preston, 2.10.2015 (MC)

Vasily Petrenko, photo Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko – photo: Mark McNulty

Tchaikovsky: Selection from ‘The Seasons’, Op. 37a (orchestrated by Sergei Abir)

Canteloube: Selection from Songs of the Auvergne

Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64

Richard Strauss enjoyed a magnificent view of the Alpine peaks from the study window at his beautiful Garmisch villa in Bavaria, a sight I had the good fortune to witness last year. Strauss’s love of the Bavarian Alps was enduring; he never forgot his adventures climbing mountains as a young man and thirty years later he illustrated his experiences in music with Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony). While the massive forces required for performances of Alpensinfonie are generally a practical drawback for concert programmers, last year Strauss’s 150th anniversary generated a substantial number of concerts. I attended three performances in 2014, the most memorable being a Semperoper concert by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann. At the Guild Hall Maestro Petrenko demonstrated commendable control of his augmented orchestral forces delivering a supercharged performance heaving with colourful incident. Petrenko ensured effective forward momentum of an often hair-raising power, irresistible in its passionate intensity and grandeur. Palpable was the excitement and danger on The Ascent, and a sense of awe At the Waterfall. Remarkable too was the spectacular On the Summit before the strikingly dramatic climax on reaching the mountain summit followed by a sense of relief and exhaustion. I wonder if the Thunder and StormDescent section with the stark use of the organ has ever sounded so astonishingly loud.

Renowned for its challenging acoustics the Guild Hall lived up to its reputation especially as the Liverpool Phil required a dismantled stage that expanded onto the floor area and generated a myriad of sonic effects that varied significantly depending on one’s position in the hall. The solid floor certainly helped the focus and clarity of the sound and amid all the near deafening excitement emerged an impressive level of fine detail which can often be missed. From my position I especially noticed the sensitively weighted cowbell sequence, a cascade of tumbling harp and violin glissandi, a magical short section for cor anglais over the organ, evocative birdcalls from the clarinet and flute, splendidly yodelling oboe and the off-stage brass was effective. Not everything was as rosy, at times the volume of the eleven strong chorus of trumpets, trombones and tubas was excruciating and as is often the case in this work the wind machine was ineffective.

The opening work of the evening was four pieces from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons in Sergei Abir’s recent orchestrations which had been played the previous evening (1st October) at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. So what was described in the programme as a world première performance actually turned out to be the Preston première. Originally from a collection of miniature piano pieces published as Les Saisons (The Seasons) with each piece representing a month of the year Abir provided attractive orchestrations of September, October, November and December. In the four pieces the mood of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker was never far away especially noticeable in November: Troïka with its jingling sleigh-bells and the agreeable salon waltz December: Christmas.

Sung by Liverpool born mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston on Thursday the Liverpool Phil had programmed Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, a cycle he collected mainly in Europe and America composed in the 1960s. At Preston the audience was given much better known fare, a selection of seven songs from the glorious Songs of the Auvergne by French composer Joseph Canteloube. Opening with the perennially popular Bolero Johnston was in engaging voice providing warmly focused accounts, shimmering with ample Auvergnian atmosphere.

Michael Cookson