RPO/Petrenko review – dazzling Scriabin and spine-tingling Wagner

Royal Festival Hall, London
After a sombre opening, the ecstasies promised in the evening’s theme were reached with Wagner and Scriabin. The Royal Philharmonic and its new conductor are clearly enjoying themselves in this imaginative and accessible season

Now in his second season as its music director, Vasily Petrenko has brought a welcome touch of post-pandemic style and excitement to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, once the Cinderella of London orchestras. His thematic programming this year, subtitled Journeys of Discovery, is at once imaginative and accessible. Best of all, the RPO, who were in great form, seem to love playing for him.

Not all of the repertoire in the latest concert lived up to the evening’s prescribed theme of Ecstasy. There are certainly ecstatic moments in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, but you would hardly know that from the four largely doom-laden pieces Petrenko selected from the ballet to open the concert. Nevertheless the RPO played them with swagger, weight and swift-fingered finesse, allowing a succession of principals to shine.

Nor is ecstatic the first word that comes to mind in relation to Ravel’s bustling Piano Concerto, which the Spanish pianist Javier Perianes dispatched with insouciant assurance. Perianes seemed determined to ignore the atmospherics of the adagio, which plodded more than it should. There is more to this piece than he found in a somewhat offhand performance.

Things picked up markedly after the interval. Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde is never an easy piece to bring off in a concert setting. But it is certainly ecstatic, and it was expertly shaped and moulded by Petrenko, who showed himself a natural Wagnerian. The final chord, in which the pain embodied for so long by the cor anglais is suddenly silenced, was spine-tingling.

The bullseye of the concert, though, was unquestionably Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Petrenko had a firm grasp of the rapidly changing harmonic moods of the piece, drawing alluring playing from the orchestra, in which Emer McDonough’s flute beguiled and Matthew Williams’ wonderfully obsessive trumpet shone out. It was a compelling performance that made complete sense of Scriabin’s dazzling score, and it isn’t every day you can say that.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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