★★★ BRANTELID, LPO, PETRENKO, RFH Young cellist offers valuable balance in a hard-driven programme
The London Philharmonic, conductor Vasily Petrenko and cellist Andreas Brantelid are just back from a tour of China, so they’ve had plenty of time to get to know each other. That affinity is apparent in the ease with which Petrenko (pictured below by Chris Christodoulou) marshals the orchestral forces, directly transmitting his trademark energy to every section. But the highlight of this concert turned out to be the Elgar Cello Concerto, given a far more intimate and low-key reading than we might expect from Petrenko himself. No doubt, Brantelid was the inspiration here, but Petrenko adapted well, skilfully adapting the orchestral balance to accommodate the cellist.
The concert was part of a series entitled Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey, a year-long series of Stravinsky-themed events the opening of which theartsdesk covered a fortnight ago, so the opening work was his Song of the Nightingale. This only modestly successful ballet was adapted from the early opera The Nightingale, and the lineage shows in the many woodwind and string solo passages: aria and recitative in new guises. In fact, the orchestration here is fabulously inventive. For example, we hear muted solo violin accompanied by two harps and celesta; bassoon duet accompanied by bass drum and timpani; or three trumpets all playing in unison, but with one of them muted. Naturally, this is an excellent showcase for the LPO’s principals, all of whom shone, with top honours going to flautist Juliette Bausor as the Nightingale itself. The downside is a distinct lack of musical structure or direction. There are very few tuttis, and without the opera’s narrative it is difficult to string the modest ensembles together. Petrenko didn’t really try, focusing instead on the quirky beauty of each section.From the opening bars of the Elgar, it was clear that Andras Brantelid was going to diverge from the norm. In a concerto usually performed in a sweeping, Romantic style, discreet gestures and classical grace might seem untoward. Those broken chords that open the work were here presented at moderate dynamic, and with little gesture or flamboyance. And this turned out to be the way with Brantelid’s entire interpretation. The approach worked best in the scherzo second movement, which danced gracefully under Brantelid’s light bow. The slow movement had a chamber-like elegance, its large scale maintained, even at this lower temperature, by impressively sustained lines from the soloist and the orchestral strings. The finale was a little lacking in drama and contrast, the quiet interlude before the return of the opening in particular losing its effect. But otherwise this was a fine reading, and Petrenko gauged its scale well, never drowning out the soloist, but giving the tuttis the required impact to structure the outer movements.
Plenty of impact, too, in Scheherazade. Too much, in fact, in a reading of Rimsky-Korsakov that was all about drive and dynamism and too little about storytelling and magic. Petrenko attempted to open the first and last movements with a sudden stab, and caught the orchestra out both times. On the other hand, he built up to similarly imposing chords at the end of each inner movement, and the second was so perfectly choreographed that it prompted an impulsive ripple of applause. There was certainly plenty of energy here, and the orchestra was on top form throughout. The many solos in the second movement were all beautifully taken, and Petrenko, to his credit, gave each of them breathing space, the tempi fluid throughout the movement. But the third movement felt pedestrian, with strings not swooning as they might, and the finale was just too driven, too loud and too fast with little repose between the tuttis. The Elgar could have done with some of this energy and drama, while a little of the poise and the grace found there could have made the world of difference to the Rimsky-Korsakov.