Guildhall Orchestras

Mozart
Le nozze di Figaro – Overture
Schubert
Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Strauss
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Guildhall Chamber Orchestra
Gordan Nikolitch (violin/director)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 25 February, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Vasily Petrenko. Photograph: Mark McNultySince there was minimal overlap of personnel between the Guildhall Chamber Orchestra and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, this concert was unusual for presenting us two completely different orchestras in the course of the same concert. The contrast was further accentuated by having two very distinct personalities, Gordan Nikolitch leading from the first desk in the Mozart and Schubert and Vasily Petrenko conducting the Strauss.

With violins and winds standing for the overture to ‘Figaro’, the evening got off to a fizzing, vital start (once the first bassoonist had found his music), Nikolitch resembling nothing so much as a gigantic puppet with his jerky movements and outsize gestures … but it worked. There was a real theatrical buzz to the sotto voce opening and a palpable shock at the impact of the first fortissimo, the sound so much more immediate for the players being on their feet.

The Schubert was similarly engaging. Amazing to think that the symphony was written when Schubert was two months short of his twentieth birthday, more or less the same age of many of the players on this occasion. At first, encouraged by Nikolitch’s manic hyper-activity, there was an over-forcefulness to the playing but – and here’s the rub – there was a genuine musical impulse behind the notes. This asserted itself most strongly in the affectionate account of the slow movement in which nothing was taken for granted (and which avoided any hint of blandness) and in the impulsive one-in-a-bar Minuet (here taken quicker than almost any Beethoven scherzo but with its Trio as languorous as Mahler in summer-Ländler mode).

Would that Ein Heldenleben had been as musically rewarding. It should have had everything going for it, an up-and-coming conductor, a violin protagonist in Boris Brovtsyn who has won golden opinions (and the Guildhall Medal in 2004) and the largest most enthusiastic orchestra straining at the leash – all ingredients for a special occasion.

It opened promisingly enough, the ‘Hero’ striding forth confidently, and it seemed as though Petrenko had what Carlos Kleiber described as the main quality for a Richard Strauss performance, not dragging the tempo. However two things quickly became apparent. Firstly, that this was all so much “Sound and fury” signifying if not Shakespeare’s proverbial “nothing” then at least “not very much”. Secondly, there was an inability to sustain genuine intensity in the slower music, which was especially damaging in the work’s reflective final paragraph where all that has gone before is turned to gold and transfigured through the prism of memory.

Rather than leading inexorably to the critics lying in wait, the music’s initial paragraph was curiously weightless and lacking in underlying momentum, the orchestra encouraged to give too much too soon and the brass allowed to predominate over the strings. Those critics – represented by spiky winds – were an appropriately acidic lot, and their carping seemed well-placed. Boris Brovtsyn is a fine player in the role of the composer’s alternatively capricious and sentimental wife, Pauline, he made heavy weather, milking the music’s sentiment but failing to find its whimsy (too many violinists treat this as though it were a concerto rather than a musical portrait with the result that – as happened here – the section sags and seems unduly protracted). Elsewhere there were occasional pleasures – notably the flute section’s wonderfully sensitive ‘distant echo’ of the critics in their lead in to the off-stage trumpets that usher in the battle sequence – but these were few and far between.

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