Pure Gold from Nicola Benedetti in Cheltenham


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cheltenham Music Festival: Elgar, Korngold, Rachmaninov – Nicola Benedetti (violin): Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Cheltenham Town Hall, 6.7.2016. (JQ)

Elgar – In the South, Op 50‘Alassio’ (1904)

Korngold – Violin Concerto, Op 35 (1945)

Rachmaninov – Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 44 (1936)

Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO brought a most attractive and colourful programme to Cheltenham Town Hall as one of the earliest events in this year’s Music Festival. The venue itself played a part in the concert because the chosen programme meant that a large orchestra had to be accommodated onto a limited amount of stage space. Thus the RLPO string section had to be reduced from its full complement – there were just three desks of cellos and two desks of double basses – and the brass and timpani were placed on the tiered staging above and behind the rest of their colleagues. As I feared, this meant that the brass was sometimes rather too prominent at times, especially in the Elgar. I’m sure that In the South in particular would have sounded very different in the more spacious acoustic of the orchestra’s home, the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.

I believe that Petrenko has played quite a bit of Elgar during his time on Merseyside though this was the first time I’ve heard him conduct this composer’s music. His recording of the First Symphony, made as long ago as 2009, was well-received (review). There was much to admire in his account of In the South. The opening pages had great sweep and energy while the ‘canto popolare’ interlude was beautifully done; here a lovely rendition of the viola solo was most delicately accompanied. In general the flamboyant side of the score suited the conductor particularly well and in quieter passages there was no doubting his care for detail.  Some aspects of the performance were less successful, though. It seemed to me that on some occasions Petrenko adopted too slow a speed for quieter passages, meaning that the music tended to meander. Also the passage in which Elgar depicts the power of the Roman legions, their lumbering progress marked by off-beat bass drum strokes, was far too loud. Here the music was made to sound even heavier than Elgar intended and with the brass in full cry the effect was, frankly, brutal. Here and in passages such as the closing pages, the fairly tight acoustic of the hall and the way in which the orchestra had to be laid out surely played a part. The brass were undoubtedly too much to the fore at times but I don’t really blame the players; in music such as this you can only hold back so much without the performance sounding half-hearted.

Nicola Benedetti joined the orchestra to play the Korngold Violin Concerto, a work she recorded a few years ago (review). The orchestral forces were much reduced for this piece – just two trumpets and a single trombone, for instance – and the benefits were immediately apparent; this was a score much more suited to the hall.  From the outset Miss Benedetti made a great impression. In the opening paragraphs she offered gorgeous, singing tone and she was supported with great finesse by Petrenko and the RLPO. Korngold’s long singing lines were ideally suited to this soloist and I relished both the richness of her tone in the violin’s lower register and the absolute purity of tone when she played in alt. Not all was sweetness, though; there was an appropriate touch of steel in the cadenza.

We were treated to a ravishing account of the slow movement. Once again the expansive cantabile passages were a gift to Miss Benedetti while the accompaniment was burnished and finely detailed. The rapt ending of the movement was particularly exquisite. It was time for scampering virtuosity in the finale, though even here Korngold gives his soloist opportunities for lyricism, opportunities that were seized. It seemed to me that Nicola Benedetti thoroughly enjoyed being put through her paces in this movement. Someone once remarked, rather cruelly, that Korngold’s music was more corn than gold; this performance was pure gold. Such was the warmth of the reception for this gifted soloist that I thought we might have been given an encore but it was not to be.

It was recordings of Rachmaninov, and in particular a superb account of the Symphonic Dances (review) that first made me aware of the Petrenko/RLPO partnership. Subsequently they recorded the symphonies together and I enjoyed their account of the Third Symphony very much (review). Tonight Petrenko brought abundant energy to the first of the symphony’s three movements. Typically, Rachmaninov frequently relaxes into passages of wistful melancholy and Petrenko did these passages full justice. Though he gave these lyrical sections their full value I didn’t feel that he was as prone to linger as had been the case in the Elgar. The performance shared one characteristic with the Elgar in that some of the tuttis were very loud.

The second movement’s soulful nostalgia was very well conveyed and there was a good deal of expertly played solo work to admire. In this movement the somewhat close acoustic of the hall actually worked in the music’s favour because the inner workings of Rachmaninov’s imaginative orchestration registered with clarity. The central scherzo section was delivered with bite and energy and then Petrenko managed the return to the slow music very skilfully. I’ve never been completely persuaded by Rachmaninov’s finale. It seems too episodic and while there’s a great deal of colourful and inventive music I don’t think the composer is entirely successful in making it all hang together. However, Petrenko and his orchestra made a strong case for it, offering spirited playing or ardent lyricism according to the composer’s mood; they were good in all facets of the score. Even if the movement is less than convincing structurally it still provided a colourful end to the programme

Or not quite: Petrenko gave us an encore. I’ve heard all his cycle of Shostakovich symphony recordings, one of his major achievements on Merseyside. Here he showed us the impish side of Shostakovich with Tahiti Trot, the composer’s inventive arrangement of Vincent Youmans’ 1920s song, Tea for Two. I believe that the composer dashed this off in less than an hour to win a bet; notwithstanding the speed with which Shostakovich worked the result was witty and inventive. Conductor and orchestra had great fun with this and the Cheltenham audience was greatly entertained.

John Quinn        

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