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Review: Vasily Petrenko and RLPO play Beethoven ****


It should have been a chance to enjoy some master music-making and to say goodbye to someone who has shaped the scene at Hope Street (and beyond) for 15 years.

But the pandemic has undone all the plans for Vasily Petrenko’s final season with the Phil, denying audiences the farewell that they – and he – deserved.

Perhaps that was a thought that lingered when this latest series of ‘On Demand’ concerts, all but one recorded in an empty hall and specifically for broadcast, was programmed with Petrenko involved in four of the six performances in the package.

Another casualty of Covid has been Beethoven, the 250th anniversary of whose birth was due to be celebrated across the season.

The two, composer and conductor, come together in this concert which is available online until May 20.

Beethoven was at something of a crossroads when he started his second symphony in 1801, both in musical terms (the musical world balance tipping from classicism into romanticism) and in personal terms with his hearing deteriorating sharply.

While the work doesn’t have the stature of some of his later symphonies, there’s still plenty to appreciate within its sunny D major structure. Here the reduced 40-strong orchestra generated a real energy and colour – which I can only presume would have been even more vivid in the hall itself.

Petrenko proved sensitive to the composer’s tempo and teased out the boldness of the work’s rhythmic motifs and the sudden bursts of drama.

Thus we got an enjoyably buoyant opening movement and some lovely shaping and phrasing through a larghetto whose cashmere cosiness was punctuated with the bite of crisply rhythmic strings.

The scherzo was delightfully light on its feet, although perhaps could have bubbled a little more, and the whip-quick allegro finale, with its starburst coda, showcased the Phil’s impressive nimbleness and lucidity.

The symphony was paired carefully with two complementary pieces from the impossibly youthful Schubert and Mendelssohn.

The first’s Overture in Italian Style, again in sunny D major, also boasted an all guns blazing finale, but elsewhere was delicate and fizzy with a starring role for some of the Phil’s woodwind section heard with perfect clarity in the emptiness of the auditorium.

Meanwhile there were three contrasting segments from Mendelssohn’s old favourite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a gleaming, joyous and pacey Overture, borderline soporific Nocturne – complete with some lovely crescendos and sinuous phrasing, and a suitably spirited and playful Scherzo with Petrenko (practically in conductor-cam) providing a range of similar facial expressions.

The RLPO team has perfected its filmed offer over the last few months; the sound quality is excellent (the only variable being the device you watch the concert on), there are short programme notes delivered in voice over before the start of each piece, and the use of several cameras means the audience has the chance to capture players in action from multiple angles and in crisp - and at times artistic, with lingering shots of fretboards and fingers - close-up.

Occasionally, here for example in the Mendelssohn overture, the edit can be a bit too busy, chopping between sections and cameras every few seconds which is visually quite distracting.

But while Covid continues to keep us from the pleasures of the live experience (fingers crossed all that changes from next month) the RLPO’s On Demand offering is a well-conceived, well-delivered alternative.


Photo top: Vasily Petrenko by Mark McNulty