After 15 successful years in Liverpool and six in Oslo, the appointment of Vasily Petrenko as musical director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was a real coup. Immediate proof of this was the Russian conductor’s ambitious and generally excellent debut concert at Festival Hall in his new role. There were also plenty of signs that, under this conductor, the RPO’s profile is likely to rise just at a time when the orchestra, and musicians in general, are most in need of it.
Petrenko’s theme in this first season will be British music, and the series is marketed by the RPO under the impeccably post-Brexit slogan of “Freedom, Hope, Adventure”, this will not fail to obtain the approval of the new secretary of culture. Upcoming concerts will feature major works by Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton and Elgar, and it was the latter two that provided the bookends for this program.
Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Opening was written in 1956 for – as Petrenko pointed out from the podium – an apartheid-era city. A work of sunny recklessness, it took place under the scathing direction of Petrenko. Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in the composer’s original and top-rated version of 1911, followed. This extraordinary score provided an excellent opportunity not only for the conductors to shine in the solos – special mention for Emer McDonough’s flute – but also to note Petrenko’s deceptively relaxed hold on dynamics, accents and phrasing.
Elgar’s violin concerto is the exact contemporary of Petrushka, but it could hardly inhabit a more different musical and aesthetic world – shy, introspective and emotionally uncertain. Petrenko rightly avoiding any temptation to linger, the Chinese violinist Ning feng gave a rich and muscular narrative. It might not have been in what you might call the English tradition, but the scope of Elgar’s concerto can take it and there was a real musical depth to the performance. As always, in his final bars there was an overwhelming feeling that the soloist and orchestra were returning from a far distant place after a long journey. Ning Feng’s encore, Paganini’s variations on God Save the King, was absolutely dazzling.