London Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko Oleg Marshev [Stravinsky, Prokofiev & Shostakovich]

Scherzo fantastique
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Oleg Marshev (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 November, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vasily Petrenko. Styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photograph:Mark McNultyIn what was his concert debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko conducted an unusually cohesive programme of works by the three leading Russian composers from the twentieth-century: composers whose development was in large part-defined by their relationship to the Soviet system.

Stravinsky left Russia prior to the Bolshevik revolution, only to return for as a much-feted ‘prodigal son’ a decade before his death. As with all his pre-Firebird music, Scherzo fantastique (1908) was pointedly ignored by its composer until his final years, and has only enjoyed regular exposure in the last decade. Petrenko directed a fleet and unfailingly lucid account: airborne for the most part, and relishing the decidedly Rimskyan content, yet with no lack of pathos in the contrasting flute theme or dynamism as the initial music stealthily returns to the fore prior to an almost nonchalant ending.

Oleg Marshev. Photograph: www.olegmarshev.comIn its sense of fantasy harnessed to a deftly applied classical framework, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (1921) followed on naturally in context. Interest centred on Oleg Marshev who was here making his London debut, and whose recordings of the composer’s complete solo and concertante music (for the Danacord label) have won deserved praise. Insofar as there is an archetypal ‘Russian’ pianist, Marshev is not it. Which is not to say that his playing was lacking virtuosity or flair in the more tensile rhythmic writing; rather it was the more inward passages – thus the first movement’s mid-way rumination on its poetic initial theme, the second movement’s ethereal fourth variation, or the finale’s fanciful dialogue on its main melody – that made the lasting impression. A pity then that, after the latter’s rapturous final appearance, the final surge to the finish saw pianist and orchestra come adrift – nullifying one of the most electrifying conclusions to any concerto. Even so, Marshev’s artistry is such that he will hopefully appear again in London before too long, while his encore – the Tenth (‘Appassionato’) of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes – found him in total and uninhibited control. Danacord has just issued Marshev in music by the Schumanns (link below).

Central to Petrenko’s association with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (at whose helm he will be until at least 2015) is his ongoing recorded cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos, of which the first instalment was the Eleventh (1957). Admired and despised in equal measure – and for much the same reasons – this is a major statement from the composer’s ‘Russian’ period, in which the history and culture of the Soviet Union were uppermost. Few would deny the evocative quality of its content, but Petrenko went appreciably beyond that to reinforce the work’s intrinsically symphonic nature.

The opening ‘Palace Square’ was neither too fast so that its atmosphere failed to register nor too slow that its interplay of military signals and revolutionary songs became turgid. In addition, Petrenko had the measure of its discursive yet undeniable momentum such that the ‘Ninth of January’ followed on with a formal as well as expressive inevitability – its first half building in waves of Tchaikovskian fervour, then the remainder a graphic yet never merely gratuitous depiction of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre and its numbed aftermath. Compared to his recording, Petrenko (rightly) favoured a slightly more expansive view of ‘Eternal Memory’ – its central span amassing a tragic strength and emotional fervour set in relief by the haunted processional on either side. Nor was ‘The Alarm Bell’ other than a fitting finale – its seething energy and heated interplay of earlier ideas placed at a remove by the cor anglais soliloquy (eloquently rendered by Sue Bohling) that endows all before it with an inherently personal perspective; after which the work powered to a conclusion in which anguish and defiance are set against the inanity and brutality of human action – whether 1905 or 1956 being beside the point.

Although present on the platform, the bells that should dominate the closing bars seemed at first absent and then muted in their impact – thus detracting from the implacability of the music as it fades into silence. A preventable blemish, surely, on what was otherwise as convincing an account as this still-underestimated work has had in London during recent years; one in which the LPO (which has given some memorable Shostakovich performances with Vladimir Jurowski and Ingo Metzmacher) was not found wanting in its response. Hopefully Petrenko will be working with the orchestra again and soon.

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