Prom 19: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4; Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances

Paul Lewis (piano); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko

Royal Albert Hall, 2 August 20083 stars

Vasily PetrenkoMuch as the appointment of Vasily Petrenko as Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has worked wonders for the orchestra’s morale – shown not least by their warm ovation for the maestro at the close of the concert – this Prom suggested that there’s still a long way to go before the ensemble can compete with the country’s finest. The pleasures of this concert were transient and largely connected to outstanding individual performers rather than to either Petrenko’s interpretations or the quality of the playing.

The evening began with Graven Image, a BBC-RLPO co-commission that received its world premiere. The forty-year-old composer, Kenneth Hesketh, comes from Liverpool, and it’s good to see that the orchestra is investing so widely in new music (with plans for thirty premieres in the coming year according to an article in The Times this week), not least by one of their own. But I’m afraid the piece merely reinvigorated my cynicism for the future of contemporary music. Much as Hesketh has created an attractive sound world, the three-part structure of the work – brooding outer sections and a climactic middle section – seems something of a cliché to me, and there was little to take away with us in the memory. One experiences the sounds in the moment, but the material is ultimately forgettable, and I don’t really feel that there was anything acutely emotive or thought-provoking here. The RLPO’s playing, however, was exemplary, with notable woodwind solos and a sense of keen concentration from the whole ensemble.

Following this, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto received a curiously (and sadly) bloodless performance from the orchestra, joined by regular soloist Paul Lewis. Conductor and pianist seemed to have decided to interpret the work as a chamber piece – all tinkling staccati, restrained dynamics and thin textures, rather than going for Beethovenian weight. For me, this approach was entirely unconvincing. The many sforzati, fortissimi and other gestural accents marked in the score were scarcely adhered to, especially in the first movement. Lewis’ technical skill is breathtaking, and the speed and evenness with which he took many of the whizzing scale passages was impressive, but the feeling that this piece may be about intimacy seemed also to have overridden the opportunity for warmth, too. The orchestra struggled with the Albert Hall’s tricky acoustic, not playing with enough nuance or precision to create the late Classical sound that Petrenko was clearly aiming for.

The opposition of the piano and orchestral parts was sloppily done in the second movement, where the short, sharp and loud notes of the orchestra should contrast dramatically with the soloist’s lyrical line (molto cantabile in the score), but the two merged into one and Lewis did not shape the melody enough. A lack of architectural signposts and flair marred the third movement; there was grace and polish, but I never felt anyone on stage had actually got inside the heart of the piece.

About four years ago, I heard a thrilling performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances at the Proms with Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic; the RLPO under Petrenko didn’t come anywhere near that standard at this Prom. The problem lay mainly with the conductor, who resorts to superficial flourishes of the baton that do little to inform the musicians of his intentions and receives superficial, generalised playing in return. This should be such a brilliant orchestral showcase, but it felt routinised here. The first movement’s vibrant, rich palette benefited from strong individual moments from the wind section, but the infectious bounce was missing, partly because of poor coordination between sections and an insubstantial combined string timbre. The second movement lacked the all-important sardonic air that this waltz demands – a danse macabre as Andrew Huth’s programme note rightly says. Huth also points to a vital quality in the third movement: ‘a life-against-death struggle’ created by a mixture of a chant from the Russian Orthodox liturgy and the Dies irae motif. The material was there in the RLPO’s lively performance, but it seemed to me that its significance was completely overlooked.

While it’s wonderful that Liverpool’s orchestra has regained some of its former stature, not least in resuming its former prominence in the cultural life of the city, I fear that the RLPO-Petrenko relationship was not shown off at its best at this concert, though it was well received by a encouragingly decent-sized audience.

By Dominic McHugh

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