Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra/Petrenko @ Barbican, London

18 November 2008

Whatever youth orchestras may lack in experience and polish, they generally make up for with an exciting combination of zeal and virtuosity.

That was certainly the case during this concert by the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, made up of students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

And as the guest conductor for this concert was the charismatic, thirty-two year old Vasily Petrenko, a sense of youthful energy pervaded the entire concert. The first piece on the programme was a short orchestral piece by Edmund Finnis (born 1984), currently a Composition Fellow at the Guildhall School. Entitled Flicker owing to its constantly changing surface texture, Finnis’s composition exhibits sharp contrasts of mood varying between exuberance and mystery. Although the melodic interest was somewhat eclipsed by the imagination of the scoring, it made an excellent showcase for the orchestra.

Another student of the school, Martyna Jatkauskaite was the soloist in Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. Jatkauskaite’s fast pace allowed her to demonstrate an awesome technique at the keyboard. However, her breathless pacing tended to leave Shostakovich’s melodies by the wayside and didn’t leave much room for his spiky humour or charm either. These aspects of the music were better captured by the trumpet soloist, Philip Cobb, whose playing conveyed brilliance in the outer movements and a moving sense of pathos in the second. Petrenko summoned agile and expressive playing from the strings, the contribution from the ‘cellos especially convincing.

The performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony after the interval was more consistently impressive. Petrenko’s conducting of the first movement brought soaring melodic lines, a firm rhythmic impulse and a sense of tension. Underpinned by a rich and well balanced orchestral sound, the movement concluded with a series of overwhelming climaxes. The scherzo was notable for its fleetness and character, the playing bristling with energy.

Petrenko adopted an unusually slow tempo for the Adagio, the movement lasting almost 15 minutes here (compared to the 12 minutes of most other conductors). Nevertheless, the music’s contrasting episodes of yearning, menace and fantasy were strongly projected, and there was an overall sense of tragedy that was very moving. Only towards the end did Petrenko’s challenging tempo cause a few difficulties for the orchestra and a drop in emotional tension.

The joyful final movement was distinguished by highly eloquent woodwind playing (especially from the first clarinet) and concluded in exuberant style. Altogether this was an impressive achievement with the orchestra on good form and Petrenko demonstrating his skills as a Prokofiev interpreter of the first rank.

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