Royal Albert Hall
Schumann (re-orch. Mahler) – Overture: Manfred, op.115
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor, op.18
Tchaikovsky – Manfred: Symphony in four scenes after the dramatic poem by Byron, op.58
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
Outstanding! I am tempted to leave it at that, but had better not. After my first two Proms (Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Die Meistersinger), I was beginning to think that I must have been unduly harsh; perhaps I had not given due regard to the notorious vagaries of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic. This stunning performance from all concerned persuaded me that, if anything, I had been lenient, for there was a world of difference to be heard from the opening bar of Schumann’s Manfred Overture, as re-orchestrated by Mahler.
There is no need to become hung up on Mahler’s role here, though it is noteworthy that this orchestration was being performed for the first time at the Proms. Mahler sharpens up the definition a little, but this still sounds like Schumann. The overture opened dashingly; Vasily Petrenko’s more or less immediate downbeat announced silken string sound of an entirely different order from that served up on those earlier two Proms. I was put in mind of the Philharmonia under Christian Thielemann, though Petrenko’s reading pulsated with life whilst remaining highly flexible. (The Philharmonia/Thielemann recording of Schumann’s Third Symphony is first-rate, however.) Petrenko had no time for the latter-day nonsense of scaling down strings. That there were as many double basses (eight) as for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of the Mahler was partly testament to their insufficiency; more importantly, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic sounded like a full orchestra. How the cellos sang – and how sepulchral the trombones sounded! This Manfred was febrile, heroic, but always in the orbit of Beethovenian humanism, never driven too hard. There was also a loving tenderness that looked forward to Strauss’s Don Juan; Petrenko really made those Neapolitan sixths tell.
Petrenko and Simon Trpčeski then went on to impress upon me that Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is merely over-performed – and over-performed at an insufficient level. For in this reading it sounded minted afresh. Trpčeski’s magical opening chords and crescendo showed that, if ever a composer wrote for the Steinway, it was Rachmaninov, but he needs a pianist equal to the task, which he found here. Trpčeski (almost) made it sound easy, but never routine. Petrenko’s orchestral part was the equal of any I have heard: well, perhaps not the Philadelphia Orchestra of old, with the composer himself at the keyboard, but certainly, for instance, Haitink’s Concertgebouw for Ashkenazy. Moreover, the partnership between Trpčeski and Petrenko was as tight as any I have heard, revealingly as much about integration as opposition. With touches of echt-Russian vibrato in the brass, this was a reading that drew upon tradition but also presented something new: an almost Mendelssohnian, elfin performance at times, nevertheless lacking nothing in weight when it came to the great climaxes. As for the intervention of a mobile telephone, I can only hope that the offending object was put to its proper use as rectal thermometer for its owner. The tender slow movement permitted Trpčeski to impart an interestingly Brahmsian quality to the placing and voicing of the piano chords. Nicholas Cox’s melting clarinet solo would rival any I have heard. For the most part, this Adagio sostenuto was restrained, but there was no doubting the genuine quality of the emotion bubbling beneath the surface – and occasionally over it. Such subtlety would of course have been impossible without absolute security in terms of understanding and outlining the music’s harmonic progression. Taking the finale attacca prevented applause from once again being sounded, though bronchial dissent was not to be stifled. Trpčeski unleashed a veritably Lisztian devilry in his pianism, complemented by a combination of warmth and sardonicism – snarling brass in particular – from the RLPO. Brahms was not yet vanquished, however, in the voicing of the chords; indeed, a battle royal between him and Liszt was not least of the musical excitements on offer. The fugato was likewise clear and exciting. Though I fancied myself weary of this music, I should eagerly have heard it repeated immediately in a performance of this quality.
If the Rachmaninov is oft-performed, one cannot say the same of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Petrenko and the RLPO have recorded the work, as indeed they have the concerto with Trpčeski; if either performance matches this concert, it should be highly commended indeed. Liszt once again came to mind with the opening, the hero’s theme surely a reminiscence of the questing Faust Symphony, likewise the unusual tonal instability. There was no mistaking, however, the utter Russianness of the RLPO strings’ interventions. Once again, their depth of tone put earlier performances to shame. Petrenko proved a sure guide – no easy thing in music that can readily meander – and imparted a taste of Swan Lake to the magnificent yet rounded climaxes. The scherzo, the realm of the Alpine fairy, brings hints of Mendelssohn, albeit with Liszt’s – and Berlioz’s – means. The lyricism, however, is all Tchaikovsky’s own; Petrenko revelled in both aspects. So did his crack players: the strings took us to St Petersburg, the trio of flutes proving equally beautiful of tone. And if the movement goes on a bit, there is only so much performers can do – but they did. Ravishing horn playing was one of many highlights in the Andante con moto. It flowed, but rightly took its time too, permitting the strings to sing. There were hints of the ‘Scène aux champs’ from the Symphonie fantastique, but rustic elements were given their due too, albeit without the hideous over-emphasis in which one can imagine some conductors indulging. Sterner moments looked forward towards the late symphonies. And the bells tolled atmospherically, inevitably reminding once again of Berlioz. The finale proved equally colourful, if more resplendently so, given its nature. I was again struck by how well-drilled the orchestra was, though never bureaucratically so. The fugato was despatched with flair, whilst a strong narrative sense emerged through the movement’s – indeed, the symphony’s – progress. There was, finally, a true sense of tragedy to the denouement. Graham Eccles’s organ contribution was properly grandiose: this may be hokum, but when done with such style, who can complain? It was, however, the orchestral subsiding, beautiful and noble, that lingered more stubbornly in the mind. On this showing, Petrenko and his orchestra are a pairing to match any resident in London.