Refined Romanticism from Petrenko and the RPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom An Heroic Journey – Brahms, R. Strauss: Denis Kozhukhin (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 11.6.2019. (CS)

Denis Kozukhin (c) Marco Borggreve

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor Op.15

Strauss Ein Heldenleben Op.40

The published programme didn’t seem to promise subtlety and elegance. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s pairing of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Richard Strauss’s self-ironising paean, Ein Heldenleben, looked set to raise the Royal Festival Hall rafters with a blast of Austro-German Romantic fervour and fire.  In the event this was a performance more noted for its refinement than its roar.

It was a fitting coincidence of time and occasion for Petrenko to conduct Ein Heldenleben, with the conductor having recently released a recording of Heldenleben (with the Oslo Philharmonic, and paired with Also sprach Zarathustra) and having had his status as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director Designate confirmed (he will step into the MD’s shoes in the 2020-21 season).  This was, then, a good opportunity for conductor and players to begin the process of ‘getting to know each other’; and the signs were auspicious.

Petrenko seems to achieve much from little; that is, there’s clearly a live wire burning in both heart and head, but it doesn’t make itself felt in any overtly heated or histrionic manner.  There are moments of expanse and passion, but the intellect always balances the indulgence, and a wry humour is as likely to make an appearance as heart-wringing antics.  Every detail is so clearly integrated into a holistic conception.  And, I’d suggest that Petrenko has one of the most expressive left hands in the business: while the right-arm is rhythmically taut and directionally driven, the left is a butterfly – its wings flutter delicately, or hint, coax, bloom, shroud.  The combination of delicacy and drama is mesmerising.  There is nothing extravagant, but the effect is always emotive.  There are moments when Petrenko’s heart is worn on his elegant sleeve but it’s the head that remains in charge.  And, importantly, he looks as if he’s enjoying himself, and that he cares that his musicians are too.

There will, inevitably, be a few questions to be answered and choices to be made in the upcoming seasons.  Most particularly, what ‘sound’ does Petrenko want from his strings, and especially from his fiddle sections?  At present, leader Duncan Riddell heads a group of strong, disciplined players, but there’s an absence of an ‘ensemble sound’ upon which all are agreed.  Celli and double basses, headed by Richard Harwood and Sebastian Pennar, seem more ‘in accord’; there was some beautifully eloquent cello playing in the Strauss, finely phrased and confidently tuned.  And, the woodwind section principals seem to have strong individual identities – although on this occasion I was seated quite near the stage and didn’t feel that I could fully assess the fine details of the whole ensemble timbre (though I had the perfect vantage point from which to observe both Petrenko’s communicative subtleties and pianist Denis Kozhukhin’s immaculate technical proficiencies!).  I suspect it will be an exciting and rewarding journey as conductor and instrumentalists find their mutual feet and pathway.

As for this Ein Heldenleben, it seemed to take a little while to get into its stride.  The presentation of the Hero was noble, the ridicule of his adversaries nonchalantly snide.  Riddell’s solo representation of the Hero’s courtship of soprano Pauline de Ahna – soon to be Mrs Strauss – was tender, capricious, intense and vigorous by turn, as it should be – and effortlessly rendered.  But, with the Hero’s battlefield escapades and ‘Works of Peace’, Petrenko found the musico-narrative momentum that had been lacking previously.  And, in the ‘Retreat from the World and Fulfilment’ there was sweetness, sensuality and serenity.

The orchestral introduction to Brahms’s First Piano Concerto felt rather tense and unsettled.  The string sound was quite dense and hard-edged: the drum rolls were threatening, the trills slightly frenzied.  What I found interesting was the way Petrenko made me reflect on the detail and depth of this Maestoso orchestral exposition.  Brahms completed the concerto in 1858: it began life as a string quartet and metamorphosed through various identifies – sonata for two pianos, symphony, then piano concerto.  But, Petrenko reminded me that it’s an ‘early’ work: the voice of Beethoven is not far away in the richness of this orchestral opening.

Equipped with meticulous technical proficiency and expressive focus, and restraint, Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin did not need to bathe the Concerto in bombast.  If one did not know the work, the piano’s entry might have gone almost unnoticed, so nonchalantly did the soloist slip into the musical play.  There was no obvious attempt to make the first theme ‘sing’ but the second chordal theme was beautifully expressive in its relaxed majesty.  If this first movement felt quite unhurried at times, this was then probably because there was no surface freneticism.  But, there was an underlying and propulsive energy.  One imagines that a pianist needs hugely powerful hands to tackle the double octaves and trills, but in fact Kozhukhin’s fingers seemed to float – fleet, light, gentle – over the ivories; when the double octave trills were chiselled as if in steel it was quite a shock – and such contradictions are useful to keep a listener on their toes!  Kozhukhin was listening intently to the orchestra throughout, participating in the organic growth of the material – should the Concerto have been a Symphony after all?

Brahms wrote the words the words ‘Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domine’ on the score of the Adagio and professed that the movement was a portrait of his beloved Clara Schumann.  I have to say that I found Kozhukhin rather too cool and detached here, though Petrenko did nurture some emotional warmth and encouraged some lovely warm playing from the RPO’s clarinets and oboes.  The Rondo felt rather too tense for my liking, and lacked a Hungarian playfulness, but one could not fault Kozhukhin’s consummate despatch of the technical challenges.

I wonder, though, whether immaculateness is sufficient with respect to this Concerto?  Surely there’s a cragginess and struggle that need to be made apparent to the listener?  There are so many themes, and they are so endlessly explored, that it should perhaps feel like a skirmish rather than a walk in the park?

Kozhukhin’s encore confirmed what he wanted to say, though.  I wondered whether we would hear one of Brahms’s late intermezzos which seem in accord with the pianist’s temperament; but, no, we were presented with Greig’s ‘Arietta’ from the first book of Lyric Pieces: short, subtle, questioning.

Claire Seymour

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on June 24 and will be available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days thereafter.

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