Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Šervenikas [Diana Brekalo plays premiere of Peter Fribbins’s Piano Concerto]

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto [Commissioned by the UK Embassy of the Republic of Croatia: world premiere]
Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op.35
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93

Diana Brekalo (piano)

Angela Whelan (trumpet)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Robertas Šervenikas

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 April, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts at Cadogan Hall often ring the changes, as did this one in which pianist Diana Brekalo appeared in two very different concertos that played to her strengths in complementary ways.

First was the world premiere of Peter Fribbins’s concerto. Fribbins, in his early forties, has attracted attention primarily for a series of thoughtfully crafted chamber works. Any doubts as to his ability on a larger scale were all but banished by this work which, cast in three movements (with the latter two playing without pause), evinced a confident handling of formal momentum such as amply sustained the thirty-minute whole. With its slow but far from inert introduction that came gradually and atmospherically into focus, the first movement proceeded as a substantial Allegro, its principal themes, if not overly distinctive in themselves, allowed for plenty of contrast and development – for all that the heightened reappearance of material is not wholly reconciled within its new context. The slow movement is framed by introspective sections with the soloist to the fore, between which the latter entered into a limpid and affecting dialogue with the woodwind (Brekalo is of Croatian descent, and it was hard not to feel a Slavic tinge here) in what was the work’s most memorable passage. After which, the finale once more juxtaposes ideas of relative dynamism and stasis – drawing in references to the theme from the work’s opening on the way to an incisive fugal elaboration of the salient material, prior to a quizzical return to the opening theme then a brusque final surge.

Brekalo seemed largely at ease with a solo part that, while it does not court virtuosity per se, throws up numerous challenges both of itself and in terms of coordination with the orchestra. The RPO responded ably to the direction of Robertas Šervenikas in a performance which, while not without its rough edges or lapses in ensemble (not least in that coruscating close), was sympathetic to the work’s essentially classical sense of cohesion. The UK has seen several piano concertos of note in recent years (with those by John Pickard and Tom Ingoldsby resonating in the memory), and Fribbins’s new work looks set to join them.

After the interval, Brekalo (a pianist to listen out for) gave further notice of her abilities in a fine account of Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. The opening movement saw her push its extremes of rumination and display to the limit yet without sacrificing formal unity, while the Lento was notable for its steadily mounting intensity up to the declamatory solo climax – after which Angela Whelan’s veiled counter-melody was an understated pleasure. Good that the brief third movement was given expressive room to breathe before the high-jinks of the finale, Brekalo fairly milking its plethora of allusions to tunes serious and popular before the manic humour of the concluding bars.

Beethoven opened and closed the programme. Egmont Overture got off to a slightly flaccid start, but the main portion astutely combined portentousness with reticence (notably in a simmering central development), while the coda brought fervent but never brazen affirmation. The Eighth Symphony was just a little staid in its outer movements, but the RPO brought real clarity to some of the most densely scored passages in any classical symphony, and Šervenikas had the full measure of the second movement’s urbane humour and the Minuet’s robust motion – its Trio placing a premium on horn intonation such as the present players met with alacrity.

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