Petrenko Impresses at Cleveland’s Summer Festival

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Rachmaninoff: David Fray (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 29.7.2017. (MSJ)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K.491

Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.7

Vasily Petrenko strode onto the stage at Blossom Music Center as if he owned it. And for the hour of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, he did, making a strong impression in his Cleveland Orchestra debut. Such a sturdy stage presence could be off-putting in someone without the mastery to back it up, but Petrenko has that in abundance.

As music director of both the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in England and the Oslo Philharmonic in Norway, Petrenko has been widely praised for revitalizing the ensembles, and for displaying a crisp, magnetic way with composers as diverse as Shostakovich and Elgar. He recorded Rachmaninoff’s Second with the Liverpool orchestra in 2011 – an interpretively outstanding version that lacked only richness in the strings.

With the Cleveland Orchestra, Petrenko had the depth of sound to fully realize his vision, and a glorious vision it is. Though the Second is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of the Russian symphonic repertory, it is notoriously difficult to bring off in performance. If the conductor is too indulgent with the voluptuous detours, the whole structure implodes – instead of seeming spacious, it seems endless. And if the conductor holds the reins too tight or pushes forward too hard, one can quickly turn indifferent to the inexpressive results.

There is a fairly narrow path running between those pitfalls, and Vasily Petrenko knows it intimately. His opening tempo for the first movement was broad but always flowing, lingering at transitions but never losing the through-line. Every nuance and dynamic shading was outlined by the balletic conductor, making this often-troublesome movement unfold in one breath.

It is worth noting two major differences from Petrenko’s recording: In this concert, he skipped the exposition repeat that extends the long first movement even further, and he happily did away with the inauthentic timpani thwack on the last note of the coda. Though the addition is frequently used by conductors, Rachmaninoff’s score does not indicate any percussion on that note, and it changes the emphasis if it is used. I was disappointed to hear it in Petrenko’s recording, but glad to hear he has rethought it.

The second movement scherzo was alert and electrifying, yet allowed a sparkling sense of fantasy in all the right places. The radiant slow movement was tender yet never indulgent, matching the cool loveliness of Daniel McKelway’s clarinet solo. The central climax of was built masterfully, allowing the last part of the movement to dissolve into an earned bliss.

The finale was equally fine, with Petrenko continuing to find the perfect balance between urgent forward drive and ecstatic lyricism. In sum, if there’s a better conductor of Rachmaninoff in the world today, I haven’t heard them.

The first part of the concert was something else altogether. Why anyone would program Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 as a counterbalance to Rachmaninoff is a perplexing question. The works have utterly nothing in common other than the fact that they both start in minor keys. Perhaps the strongest argument is that the works are almost opposites. The Mozart is as trim as the Rachmaninoff is expansive – modest in orchestral forces against the Rachmaninoff’s full complement, and restrained rather than emotional.

All this is aside from the very real issue of the performance venue. The Blossom Music Center pavilion is a big amphitheater with vast amounts of resonant wood. Rachmaninoff thrives in such a big, rangy acoustic. Mozart’s most intimate piano concerto, particularly in an introspective performance, seemed lost in the vast space of the hall.

The pianist for the Mozart was the fine French artist David Fray, and one can only praise his grace and poise. But his intimate conception was a problem. When I went back to examine my previous review of Fray — Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Marin Alsop in 2013 — I found the same issue:  As the piece went on, though, I became less and less convinced that Fray was ever reaching outside his own world to connect with the conductor, musicians, or audience. While surely aware of all three, Fray did not convey an urge to communicate the personality evident from his stylistic choices. The style was there to be heard, yet it also remained somehow aloof, calculated, sealed-off. One hopes this intriguing young artist will continue to grow and discover that even introspective music needs a fellowship of performers and listeners to truly come to life.

Once, a fluke. Twice, an issue. Fray was so much inside his own world, there appeared to be no connection at all with the conductor. The two kept accurately together, but there was little sense of them being united in spirit.

That said, Fray’s poise was enough to do considerable justice to Mozart’s gentle bleakness, even if the energy level kept it at arm’s length. Fray’s rolling, seemingly effortless passage work brings to mind the description of Mozart’s own pianism, which a contemporary described as flowing like oil over water. One could argue that the small scale is exactly how Mozart wrote it, which is true. But don’t perform it at a large summer festival, do it with a chamber orchestra in a small, intimate hall. I wish Fray felt the desire to communicate his vision to the entire theater, not just the first few rows.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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