Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 53: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Petrenko @ Royal Albert Hall, London

25 August 2016

Prom 53

Vasily Petrenko
(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The big news before the event was that, due to illness, Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk would not be performing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major as advertised. On the face of it, this appeared to be a severe blow to the concert given Mørk’s pre-eminence in the field, his experience exemplified by the fact that he has played Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 alone three times at the Proms before now. So would 25-year old replacement Alexey Stadler, on his Proms debut and stepping in at such short notice that the programme still bore Mørk’s name, make the grade?

The answer was ‘absolutely’! This was an extremely evocative performance, in which Stadler, for all the extent to which he moved us, revealed exceptional levels of precision and control, and maintained a pleasing level of understatement. This final element proved particularly important because while many performances may appear on the surface to reveal greater variety in colour to convey the depth of emotion, Stadler achieved the same result with a more ‘limited’ palette as the subtleties in gesture and sound brought much to light. In this way, Stadler achieved a degree of urgency in his solo line in the opening Allegretto even as the output was kept smooth. In the following Moderato he maintained an appropriate level of eeriness in his ‘A minor line’ precisely because of the relatively direct nature of his sound. If there were times when the temptation to imagine how Mørk might have tackled the piece arose, these were very few because any need for comparison was rendered entirely redundant by the strength, and ‘uniqueness’, of Stadler’s own execution.

Although Stadler was excellent, good performances of concertos can be attributable to the strength of the orchestra as much as the soloist. So it was here as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Vasily Petrenko, seemed to find a particular affinity with the music and Stadler’s own style. The extent to which the fit seemed to be natural was also demonstrated by the fact that the orchestra’s performance style for Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor after the interval seemed to represent a natural extension of its playing style for the Shostakovich, with any adjustments arising from the fact that it was now taking centre-stage in its own right.

The first piece of the evening was the world premiere of Emily Howard’s Torus (Concerto for Orchestra), a BBC co-commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Lasting twenty minutes, it is formed of one continuous movement. A torus is a geometrical and scientific form that constitutes a ‘whole with a hole’ and Howard’s aim was to ensure that there was a void within the music so that the absence became as important as the presence. She suggests that ‘the overall shape of Torus is more important than any particular surface detail’ and it is a piece of subtle contrasts. The strings maintain an almost permanent presence throughout the piece, but vary considerably in playing style. Often long, serene bowing creates a bed on which wind, brass or percussion can spit forth its contrasts, but at other times the strings replicate, or even lead on, the agitated sounds to be heard elsewhere in the orchestra. The contrasts and hence stakes seemed to rise from about halfway through the piece, while the evening also included two highly enjoyable encores. Stadler played the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 before the interval, while the concert closed with Shostakovich’s own arrangement of Tea for Two.

This Prom will be available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days. For further information on this and all BBC Proms click here.

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Prom 53: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Petrenko @ Royal Albert Hall, London