Prom 41: RPO/Vasily Petrenko, with Alexandre Kantorow

György Ligeti

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op.58

Dmitry Shostakovich
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op.93

Alexandre Kantorow

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenk

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 15 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Prone to plastic beaker dropping and desultory applause, the audience seemed stricken with bronchitis for much of this concert. A shame for music-making so preoccupied with clarity and precision. The capacity crowd (the arena chock-a-block as in pre-health and safety days) had probably not come for the Ligeti though Lontano is arguably the most compelling of his orchestral works. It is certainly the piece most often taken up at the Proms by non-specialist forces. Its most recent champions, in 2018, were Sir George Benjamin and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the present rendition was its fifth at the Royal Albert Hall. That Ligeti creates his spellbinding cobweb of sound from formal ‘micropolyphonic’ processes may only be audible to the cognoscenti but the work creates an uneasy atmosphere its own way. Pockets of apparent harmonic congruity, plentiful unisons and iridescent colour ensure that it communicates more than the one-dimensional alienation of the first movement of the Requiem or Lux aeterna, both heard the previous week. In the programme booklet Stephen Johnson’s note suggested that the very title (Italian for ‘distant’) could imply that Ligeti was ‘distancing himself from hard‑line Modernism, with its dogmatic horror of all forms of personal expression’. My companion wondered whether the composer had been looking at Strauss’s Alpine Symphony for his own shadowy final moments. The programme booklet’s picture researcher played up the music’s use in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – no mention of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

A change of mood for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, given by the immensely gifted first French winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition (in 2019). The scale of the performance was smaller than might have been expected but always perfectly formed. Kantorow kicked off with romantic freedom, that familiar opening gesture made fresh. Thereafter the default setting was skittish and soft-grained, worlds away from the adamantine qualities which Maurizio Pollini used to find in this music. Kantorow’s gorgeous pearly sound was allied to a constant feeling of improvisation, the usual first-movement cadenza very free. He also growled a bit in the Glenn Gould manner. (Or at least one assumes it was him.) The accompaniment, taut, spry and witty in its own right, was immaculately tailored to the pianist’s conception and reduced volume levels. Profundity was perhaps less in evidence. And we then had more of that suddenly fashionable Firebird transmogrification from which Alim Beisembayev played the ‘Infernal Dance’ earlier in the season. Kantorow’s encore was the ballet’s finale, rendered in flash, Lisztian garb. According to Wikipedia, Guido Agosti made his three-movement piano transcription in 1928, dedicating it to the memory of his teacher Busoni. Its inclusion tonight was pre-ordained, the illuminations switching from orange to green. (The Ligeti had been decisively red. Who can have thought that a good match? The latest innovation is to switch lighting swatches only after a piece is underway, an additional distraction.)

After the interval came Petrenko’s second Shostakovich Tenth, maintaining the high standard set by his first with the RLPO in 2012 if perhaps falling short of his commercial recording. As a demonstration of the technical prowess of his current team it was a triumph, every solo unobtrusively sculpted, the crucial timpani impeccably tuned. Throughout, speeds felt a notch faster than before. Or was that a consequence of the lighter sonority of the RPO? Determined not to let the first movement get bogged down or blown off course, Petrenko permitted more humour than usual in the perkier second group. (Hard to judge the composer’s intention in material he recycled from an earlier, aborted Violin Sonata.) Carefully terraced dynamics built waves of tension until the central climax was reached without too much effortful grinding of gears. The scherzo, so often pigeonholed as ‘a portrait of Stalin’, was brought off as a virtuoso showpiece. It was the third movement which cast the most potent spell, its inscrutable, watchful tentativeness admirably served. Was the conductor then forced to press on into the finale in order to forestall yet another embarrassed trickle of applause? Its pacing and execution could not be faulted even if one would have liked more weight in the bass, more Soviet-era gravitas. Reviewing a reissue of an early recording by Efrem Kurtz in 1966, Gramophone critic Trevor Harvey considered ‘the first movement faceless music; the second, just fast and completely undistinguished … As a compelling symphony it doesn’t impress me at all.’ Today the work lies at the heart of our repertoire but can it thrive without subtexts? Will we ever be able to move on?

1 thought on “Prom 41: RPO/Vasily Petrenko, with Alexandre Kantorow”

  1. With the publication of Testimony, Shostakovich Reconsidered, Shostakovich A Life Remembered etc., it can seem that large numbers of commentators are obsessed with finding hidden meaning in all of his music and you do feel like saying a la Toscanini, no it’s an Allegro in 3/4 time.

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