Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Mahler 1

Bach, arr. Mahler
Symphony in E – Scherzo
Symphony No.1

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 16 January, 2010
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Vasily Petrenko. Photograph: Mark McNultyPerformance of Mahler must be mixed into the DNA of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The RLPO was the first British orchestra to perform a cycle of all ten symphonies in the 1950s and 60s. There have been at least two Liverpool Cathedral performances of the Eighth – the so-called ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – in ‘living memory’ (for some of us), one in the legendary Hope Street Festival of 1977.

It’s obvious that Mahler-mania has hit the North-West. In Manchester, the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic are collaborating on a six-month project to perform all the symphonies, with this weekend’s Liverpool performance echoed – quite possibly – by the BBC outfit playing the same work at the same time in Bridgewater Hall, some 30-odd miles away.

Vasily Petrenko’s performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, the ‘Titan’, was a sparkling overture, a tasty appetiser for this eagerly awaited two-year project in Liverpool. The symphony is the product of a 29-year-old mind. Yet it portrays the troubled past which haunted Mahler since childhood, veering from depression and a gruesome fascination with death – there’s a funeral march in this work, a feature of many Mahler symphonies – to hilarious jollity. Wistful Jewish melodies remind listeners of repression already making life difficult for that community living in Mahler’s native Austria. And there’s that irreverent streak where the funeral march passes from the solemnity of a hushed synagogue to a Tyrolean bar complete with ‘oompah’ band.

The extreme rubato which Petrenko allowed in the first movement worked well. From the mysterious, pianissimo opening through to a joyous conclusion, the mood-swings were many, always well managed. The vigorous scherzo – at times wound up with a tension which could have exploded, at others totally relaxed – brought out some stunning solo playing from horns and woodwind while the ethereal canon of the slow movement was the high point of this work. The cataclysmic finale, ending hugely positively, was a considerable triumph.

These days we’re so used to performances on original instruments and scores heavily researched by experts deviating not one iota from the composer’s intentions that it was refreshing to hear Bach arranged by Mahler. Suite is four random movements scored for large orchestra with piano and organ and was refreshing, especially the icily precise ‘Air’ and a rip-roaring ‘Badinerie’.

Add an outing for the youthfully exuberant scherzo from Hans Rott’s Symphony in E. Rott died aged only 25 having lived a tragic life plagued by depression. Yet from this fragment – virtually a concerto for triangle with much chromatic sliding around as keys change bar by bar – and it wasn’t difficult to see why this composer is largely forgotten. It felt like a great cocktail pastiche of Bruckner, with Mendelssohn and Johann Strauss thrown in. Nice to hear … once.

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