Review: Petrenko's Manfred at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2


It’s 15 years since the RLPO and Vasily Petrenko gathered on the Philharmonic Hall stage to record Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

A lot of water may have flowed down the mountainside since then, but their interpretation of this gothic drama remains as powerful and vividly realised as ever.

Tchaikovsky is reported to have originally dismissed the idea of setting Byron’s poem to music when it was suggested to him by fellow composer Mily Balakirev (who had previously persuaded him to embark on Romeo and Juliet more than a decade before).

But finding himself in Switzerland at the deathbed of violinist Iosef Kotek, he finally read the Faustian work and changed his mind – and within a few months his new symphonic drama was complete.

Brooding bassoons, basses and cellos are the first stirrings from the tormented Manfred in his Alpine eerie, an eerie sonically realised here with a wall of horns on the summit of the hall’s stepped staging.

Petrenko delicately balanced the tensions of the lento lugubre, shifting from action packed drama to lyrical, restrained moments of despair to the thundering drama which encapsulated Manfred’s full emotional turmoil.

The waterfall drip of the vivace was brisk and light on its feet, with a lovely singing theme through the violins answered by an equally lovely refrain from Ben Aldren on clarinet, while the pastoral andante con moto – introduced by a long oboe line – was smooth as a bar of Milka, although also embracing a colourfully realised peasant dance.

The finale, a demonic dance to death, came with blistering attack, a whirlwind of brass and percussion from which the woodwind, strings and harp eventually – and gently – emerged, and a thundering finale with the hall’s mighty organ emerging in the coda without overwhelming the other forces on stage.

There was liveliness before the interval too with soloist Alban Gerhardt the masterly heart of a pacy, energetic performance of Rubinstein’s expansive Second Cello Concerto, packed full of interesting textures and tones.

While Rubinstein was influenced by Western composers, the concerto – its three movements played without a pause - also retains something of a distinctly Russian feel, particularly in the final rondo section.

The opening movement juxtaposed waspish, technically challenging bursts of cello with a sweet solo theme which emerged from the orchestra’s lustrous (and lusty) accompaniment.

A delicate woodwind chorale gave way to a cadenza punctuated by three short, sharp orchestral interjections which heralded an enjoyable capering dance between soloist and the woodwind and horns.

And there was an enticing jauntiness to the final allegro, a growling bumblebee cadenza from Gerhardt heralding a wild and giddy finale.

The concert opened with a moment to remember the Phil’s much-loved conductor laureate Libor Pesek, who died at the end of last month, and also former cor anglais player Zoe Kitson who passed away earlier this year aged just 44 and commemorated in a short new work by James MacMillan called simply For Zoe, aptly putting the cor anglais (here played by David Hasler) rightly centre stage.