Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Arvo Pärt & Shostakovich 4 – Paul Watkins gives the UK premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Cello Concerto

Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
Cello Concerto [co-commissioned by Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, and Gewandhaus zu Leipzig: UK premiere]
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Paul Watkins (cello)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 7 February, 2013
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Mark-Anthony TurnageIn these days of musical budgets being stretched until they snap, joint commissions are becoming commonplace. And so it was that Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Cello Concerto saw light of day, this time receiving its UK premiere in Liverpool. It’s on a European tour of premieres and was written in 2010 for Paul Watkins. Cast in a somewhat unusual five movements, the centre-point is the intense and personal fourth movement in which the orchestra plays virtually no part: rather the cello has an intense, introspective conversation with a solo horn who, inexplicably until this point, sits alongside the solo cellist.

Although they begin the movement as somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows, the music grows beautifully and turns into an impassioned plea, the two players becoming one. Subtitled ‘Prayer for a great man’ the piece was written for the funeral of the composer’s father-in-law. There is certainly a great deal of passion. As for the rest of the work, it is rather notable for a lack of anything particularly ground-breaking in here. It’s perfectly approachable and there are some special moments – notably a sublime, waltz-like second movement with the strings accompanying.Vasily Petrenko. Styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photograph:Mark McNultyThe first movement is slightly angular, though melody is always at the forefront. The striking interplay between sections of the orchestra made for an interesting opening. There’s an unnerving, stuttering start to the third movement with much humorous interplay between a scurrying, breathless solo part and pizzicato strings with vibraphone. But it’s the finale which rather catches the listener unawares. It’s a burst of joy, here enjoyed to the full by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – a big sound culminating abruptly and leaving a sense of deflation.

That was not the case with a blistering performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. It’s easy to see why Stalin and his Soviet chums found this piece hard to swallow, enough for the composer to withdraw it for many years. It’s a massive canvas and, despite feeling somewhat disjoined is, in fact, a most highly organised, intensely thematically developed work. The two huge outer movements were, here, great statements, the first movement satanic at times, occasionally sweet but always played for maximum theatrical effect by Vasily Petrenko. There was massive energy, particularly in the utterly frantic fugue. A gentler approach at the outset of the second movement turned into a highly controlled crescendo, paving the way for the cataclysmic finale. The devilish opening hid the occasional splash of humour but this was, largely, a taut, controlled performance, Petrenko always in charge of the huge forces to great effect. No doubt a recording for Naxos will follow.

How different was the opening work – Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Again, a disciplined performance, an almost imperceptible beginning working up to a powerful climax and leaving the listener on a high – but without sacrificing that initial feeling of loss.

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