Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko [Mahler’s Sixth Symphony … Sally Matthews sings Strauss’s Four Last Songs]

Four Last Songs
Symphony No.6

Sally Matthews (soprano)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 5 March, 2011
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Vasily Petrenko. Styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photograph:Mark McNultyOne of the great benefits of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s exploration of Mahler’s symphonies is that it is spread over a three-year period. Audiences have now heard the first six symphonies, as well as song cycles; Seven, Eight and Nine are due next season.

The latest Mahler from the Liverpool Phil and Vasily Petrenko, was the Sixth Symphony. With the hugely extended orchestra squeezed onto the platform, Petrenko had much power to play with and used it to maximum effect. He began the piece with a sense of breathless urgency, which rather set the pace for the whole work. What Petrenko did do, skilfully, was to contrast the great walls of sound with delicate, almost preciously transparent moments of quiet intensity. When he did let rip, there was a massive, pent-up energy that was unleashed almost mercilessly. It was an emotional roller-coaster and brought a certain raw edge to the music of Mahler.

Petrenko offered the scherzo as the second movement (see link below), altogether more relaxed yet with that element of menacing doubt still present. If anything, the slow movement, sophisticated and poised, felt rather understated, something of a let-down after the intensity of the first two movements. There was some splendid woodwind-playing though. All was dispelled by the finale, a real tour de force and as profoundly disturbing as the composer must have intended.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” with Sally Matthews. At the outset, it felt as though this was to be a disappointment given Matthews’s voice sounded small and insignificant, barely a match for orchestra accompanying her. But she grew into the performance, wringing every last ounce of emotion out of these exquisite settings, though the words were often difficult to discern. She and Petrenko allowed a great deal of give-and-take in the opening song while in ‘September’ there was a beautiful fluidity of expression that worked well, particularly the orchestral pianissimo at the end. The ravishing beauty of the final setting underlined the close and productive relationship between soloist and orchestra.

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