Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Vasily Petrenko – Vaughan Williams & Mendelssohn – Sayaka Shoji plays Respighi

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Concerto gregoriano

Symphony No.5 in D, Op.107 (Reformation) [original version]

Sayaka Shoji (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 4 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Continuing his love-affair with British orchestras after fifteen years with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the RPO’s new music director (from August 1st) sets out his stall in a programme of consummate musicality.

Continuing this year’s focus upon composers that have taken inspiration from, and pay homage to, the musical past, the well-spaced strings of the RPO shimmered wispily in the musical shade, and were forthright and sonorous where needed in Vaughan Williams’s ethereal masterpiece. This was a spacious performance both physically – the players sat one to a desk with the nine-players of the second orchestra standing, raised up, at the back – and musically, where socially distanced playing enhanced the effect.

Delving deeper into musical history, Respighi’s Concerto gregoriano, written in 1921, is the first of the composer’s works to draw upon Gregorian chant. First performed in 1922, the concerto is dedicated to the composer’s friend and violinist Arrigo Serato.

RPO, Vasily Petrenko & Sayaka Shoji at BBC Proms 2021
Photograph: BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The three-movement work is no flamboyant showpiece. Demanding at times, the writing for the violin (it was Respighi’s instrument) displays its ability to sing more than its potential for virtuosity. The composer’s study of orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov is evident; a comparatively small orchestra, when compared to the Roman Trilogy written at the same time, includes a harp and celesta for colour and timpani – the only percussion instrument – for punctuation, most notably in the strident march-like sections of the final movement.

Sympathetically accompanied, only once, at the start, was the big sound produced by Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji overcome. The lyrical second movement, described by Donald Tovey in 1929 as “a subtle and intimate work inspired with the mystic tones of the plainchant of Victimaue paschali laudes“, has, in places, a hint of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending – its melismatic line in counterpoint with wind instruments over a relatively static string base. Strident horns punctuated by percussive brass heralded the energetic third movement’s march-like opening. Easily overdone, Petrenko ensured that any previous balance issues were not repeated as the concerto proceeded to a triumphant A-major conclusion.

Dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, the Sarabande from Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.4 had audience and musicians alike focused on Shoji’s encore. This, the sonata’s second movement, is very much in a ‘mock Baroque’ style – tonal with clear J. S. Bach solo violin works in mind – and was an excellent palate-cleanser.

Following the interval came Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony. The composer seems to have turned against this work, doing nothing to promote it after its first performance, nor even publish it during his lifetime. Eventually it was published only after his death, taking the number five, although, in order of composition, it should be his second symphony.

Sonorously rich lower strings at the start provided solemnity and contrast to the ecclesiastical ‘Dresden Amen’ cadence (familiar from Wagner’s Parsifal). The deftly pointed wind opening to the second movement Intermezzo – a Ländler in every way but without the lederhosen – danced effortlessly, leading to a quietly passionate third movement Andante. Here the first violins predominate in a vocalise-like recitative – the fiddles of the RPO garnered as one in phrasing that was immaculate. Without a break, the flute – here commendably played by Emer McDonough – started the final movement with the first line of “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God) – a well-known Martin Luther hymn found in Anglican churches. Fugato writing ensues, here articulated with clarity, leading ultimately to the strident and conclusive outpouring of the “Ein feste Burg” chorale.

The RPO celebrates its 75th-anniversary this year. Formed by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1946, the Orchestra has since been acquainted with many luminaries. If tonight’s performance is anything to go by, the RPO remains in very good hands.

Skip to content