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Review: RLPO presents White Nights at the Phil *****

Yesterday was midsummer’s day – so without wanting to depress anyone, from now on the evenings will be getting longer again.

Although if you want to stretch your day, you need to head north to places like conductor Vasily Petrenko’s home city St Petersburg, where they’re currently experiencing the seasonal ‘white nights’ phenomenon.

The description has become synonymous here of course with the Phil’s Summer Pops, with Petrenko and the RLPO’s annual celebration of the music of his countrymen. Although this year the all-Russian programme has been hijacked by an Australian, in the form of the slight, Armani-clad violin virtuoso Ray Chen.

Chen played at Hope Street in 2014. If you missed that concert AND this latest performance, for goodness sake, drop everything and buy a ticket for Friday night and your last chance to hear him in the foreseeable future, because frankly, this is an unmissable performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

Without throwing superlatives at you like confetti (and I’d pretty much exhaust the supply by half way through the first, brilliant, movement), the 28-year-old plays his 1715 ‘Joachim’ Stradivarius with a seemingly effortless yet luscious layered tone, and a Technicolor vividness – as well as fantastic technical skill, making light of Tchaikovsky’s wickedly tricky scoring.

The allegro moderato was so colourful, so full of drama (from both soloist and RLPO), with exquisite moments at the very top reaches of the violin’s register, that barely had it concluded when the entire hall broke in to spontaneous applause.

Vasily Petrenko by Mark McNulty

A sweetly melancholic canzonetta was delicately done, with the added bonus of some great work from the woodwind section (Chen picked up on their playing with a musical response himself), while the allegro finale, with its fleetness of fingerwork, ensured Chen was cheered in to not one but two encores.

How to follow that? With Stravinsky’s Petrushka of course – Petrenko himself animated and dancing on the box as the first tableau built from bright hustle and bustle of the Shrovetide fair to a full-on, colourful cacophony, it’s layers of sound kept in careful balance by the conductor.

Stravinsky’s piece, a host of well-known Russian folk songs with complicated contemporary scoring underneath, was brought to life in visceral fashion.

As I said, they do it all again on Friday evening, and inexplicably there are still some seats left. Hopefully not for long.

Image of Ray Chen by Sophie Zhai

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