Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rachmaninov & Beethoven – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – 10/04/2013

Beethoven Violin Concerto & Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1
Viviane Hagner, Violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko.

I have had a vinyl LP of Rachmaninov’s first Symphony since I was around ten years old and nearly wore the grooves off it before replacing it with a couple of CDs some years (sorry, decades) later, both of which have been well loved. It therefore came as something of a surprise to me to find that so many of my friends at the Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday evening had never heard it before.

It is a shame that this symphony so rarely gets an outing, as it is a splendidly original and interesting work, and so much more Russian in character than Rachmaninov’s later symphonies. It is also sad that its premiere was such a resounding flop, resulting in the young composer enduring a long period during which he was unable to write.

That said, it’s written in such a way that it is easy for it to become rather turgid and overwrought in the wrong hands. Fortunate then that we had Vasily Petrenko with the orchestra, preparing it this week for a recording to join the second and third, already released to great acclaim.

Dark storm clouds lour over the first symphony from the outset and, despite passages of calm where the sun tries to shine through, the sense of foreboding remains in the background throughout. Even the two heavy chords of the decisive ending sound more like a threat than a resolution. Each movement begins with a differently coloured statement of the same four-note figure that haunts the entire work. At the beginning it raises the curtain on a heavy sky before the first movement makes its decisive progress. In the centre two movements it more gently introduces less threatening material but the finale launches into a menacing march-like section, becoming increasingly urgent and frenetic until it collapses under its own weight to end in a dark, brooding coda and those two heavy, dull doom-laden chords.

Now: reading back over that paragraph I feel I’m not exactly selling the idea of this symphony that I have loved so much for so many years – somehow I’ve made it sound rather bleak – but in fact it is a spectacularly brilliant piece of writing with great dramatic flow and splendid orchestration. In the hands of the RLPO under Vasily’s direction it really delivers on its promises. The orchestral playing and balance were superb, and even sitting further over to the side and closer to the violins than my usual position I was still able to hear detail in the brass and woodwind that I haven’t noticed previously. (This was an extra dose for me tonight – I’m back in my normal seat for the repeat performance tomorrow.)

There are some awkward decisions to make regarding tempo, especially in some of the gear-shifts in the last movement, and it can often feel awkward and disjointed, but Vasily has a clear view of the structure and makes some great calls on these.

It’s easy to be disappointed when hearing a rarely played piece that you’re very fond of, but this was a very satisfying performance indeed. I’m looking forward to a re-run tomorrow and, of course, hearing the disc when it appears.

Prior to the interval we were in territory that few could be unfamiliar with, in Beethoven's glorious Violin Concerto. Viviane Hagner has a beautiful tone and her reading of this perennial favourite was luminous. As with all the Beethoven we have heard him conduct, Vasily managed to bring the orchestral score from the page with a colour and originality that meant that even the familiar can sound fresh and vibrant, as though we're hearing it for the first time.

The RLPO and Vasily Petrenko can be heard in Rachmaninov's second and third symphonies on EMI classics.

Viviane Hagner - Photo © Michael Borggreve

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