Friday, January 26, 2024

PSOC Hosts London's RPO with Early and Late Romantics

Isata Kanneh-Mason plays Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko.


Philharmonic Society of Orange County hosts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

In the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s week-long residency in Orange County under the auspices of OC’s Philharmonic Society, the standout concert (for this listener at least) adhered firmly to the time-honored overture/concerto/symphony model. However, with a program as cunningly conceived as that which the RPO’s Music Director, Vasily Petrenko (left) presented in the second of the orchestra’s three evening concerts at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, few, surely, would grumble.

With emphasis very much on the “moderato” in its Allegro moderato initial marking, the RPO’s violas and cellos in rich and immaculate unison gave the somber B minor opening of Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26, a formidable oceanic swell, enhanced by Maestro Petrenko’s decision to use the orchestra’s full string strength in a work of early Romanticism (composed 1829-1830 and revised in 1832), that in HIP (historically informed) accounts by smaller forces can take on a “lean and hungry” aspect wholly absent here.

The inspiration for Mendelssohn’s overture—Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa, c.1847
(watercolor by William Leighton Leitch).
Instead, the sense of latent power opened out into a gloriously expansive, though never inert, flowering of the D major second theme, and then focused onto the vivid storm at the end of the exposition, with crisp and bold contributions from the winds and brass (the score deploys just the Classical pairs, including horns and trumpets—none of which were doubled in this performance so far as I could see, despite the weighty complement of strings).

Mendelssohn in 1829.
This allayed initial slight misgivings about the sheer breadth of the opening, and both Petrenko’s control of pace and the RPO’s fervent response in the remainder of Fingal’s Cave made the whole performance a richly satisfying reminder of what a splendid concert opener this overture is, and a promising portent of what was to come.

Petrenko’s choice of Rachmaninoff’s huge Second Symphony to fill the second half put a squeeze on the time available for the concerto in the remainder of the first half, and the selection of the concise Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7 by Clara Schumann (1819-1996) was at once appropriate, still relatively unhackneyed, and intriguing.

Her remarkable life and career have been much tilled over and analyzed, from child pianistic prodigy managed by her father Friedrich Wieck, through the often-romanticized relationship with and then marriage to Robert Schumann, to her career as a much-traveled piano virtuoso. During his lifetime, and while maintaining that career, she also ran a household for an increasingly difficult and ailing genius of a husband and a family of, eventually, eight children. Finally, acknowledged as one of if not the greatest pianist of the age, she continued to tour and perform through most of a 40-year widowhood in which she ceaselessly promoted Robert’s compositional legacy.

Clara Schumann in 1835, aged 16.
Inevitably Clara’s own composing was much curtailed by her long performing career. The key work of her early years was this concerto, which began life in 1833 as a single movement essentially orchestrated by Schumann, at the time a pupil of Wieck and already a close friend to Clara and admirer of her musicality.

She played this Konzertstück several times in public before adding two more movements in 1834 and 1835. Accounts differ as to how far she revised, or even replaced, Schumann’s orchestration of what was now the finale, but whatever its detailed chronology, she premiered the whole concerto in November 1835, having turned 16 only a few weeks before.

After an 1837 performance Schumann wrote (making clear his critical disinterest): “There are stars of thought in the first movement—yet it did not make an impression of completeness. When you are seated at the piano, I do not know you—my judgment is a thing apart.” Shortly afterwards Clara replied: “Of the many items in the program my concerto had the best reception […] Whether or no it satisfies me is another question. Do you think that I am so weak as not to know well enough what are the faults of the concerto?” She never played it in public again after their marriage in 1840.

For the RPO’s performance Petrenko reduced the string strength by a couple of desks in each section—a slightly odd decision given that it begins with a bold orchestral Allegro maestoso and that the score actually calls for one more instrument, a trombone, than Mendelssohn’s overture. Nonetheless, the opening tutti was as bold and purposeful as one could desire, as indeed was the solo fortissimo entry, just 17 measures later, by pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, the oldest of no fewer than seven musical siblings who have become something of a sensation in the UK.

Ms. Kanneh-Mason has clearly made this concerto her own and, after the unbroken link to the central Romanze, showed herself as responsive to its exquisite intimacy—in its later stages in communion with RPO Principal cellist Richard Harwood—as she was to the first movement’s rhetoric and the long finale’s momentum and virtuosity, notwithstanding a couple of spots of slightly shaky ensemble with the orchestra. The audience loved the work, and her, and Ms. Kanneh-Mason responded with a torrential account of Chopin’s Prelude in D minor, Op. 28, No. 24 as encore.

The RPO was very much back to full strength for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, begin in October 1906 and completed in April 1907. Not only is it by far his longest orchestral work overall, but more than one-third of its one-hour+ length is taken up by the first movement, a very extended sonata structure that is yet further enlarged by a repeat of the exposition. This follows a long introduction, marked Largo, and here Petrenko nailed his interpretative colors to the mast in no uncertain fashion.

Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1906.
In his hands this introduction was extremely slow, I think well under the metronome mark of quarter-note=48, and carried so much gravitas and portent that when the Allegro moderato exposition’s first subject arrived—a lengthy and effortlessly flowing dolce melody that, for Rachmaninoff, is relatively emotionally neutral—for this listener at least there was a distinct sense of anti-climax and unfulfilled expectation that a less extravagantly ominous way with the Largo would have avoided.

After a relatively fleet account of the exposition’s opening and an electrifying treatment of the accelerating climax of the first subject group, the Moderato second subject emerged with great breadth and passionate intensity. Unlike Petrenko’s commercial recording, here he did not observe the exposition repeat, which would have pulled the movement out to around 25 minutes, but a pattern was set that would recur throughout the performance: fast music swept along for maximum excitement, while the many “big tune” passages were stretched and soared and wrung tight for every drop of expressive intensity.

Rachmaninoff working at his Ivanovka
estate, near St. Petersburg, c.1910.
Thus the galloping opening of the second movement scherzo was thrillingly athletic, with the glockenspiel speckling the texture like brushed icicles in the Segerstrom’s wonderful acoustic, but was brought virtually to a halt when the nominally Moderato second subject arrived, a to-die-for melody that any other less lyrically gifted composer would have saved for their best-ever slow movement.

The Adagio, arguably the quintessential expression of Rachmaninoff’s particular brand of high Romanticism, was overwhelmingly sumptuous, with the RPO amply fulfilling every demand made by Petrenko’s expansive gestures and pacing, while the finale—for me always the most satisfying movement of this symphony, with its combination of exultant momentum and relishable call-backs to themes from earlier in the work—built to a final climax that was certainly cathartic but was rhetorically drawn out almost to breaking point.

The whole performance was, in its way, a remarkable tour-de-force both for this wonderful British orchestra and its charismatic Music Director Vasily Petrenko, and was rewarded by an ovation that threatened never to end (it would have been even better if the audience had avoided applauding between the movements). If ultimately it left me feeling slightly as if I’d unwisely taken too large a portion of a too-rich dessert, getting to that point had certainly been memorably flavorful… 


Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, Friday, January 19, 2024, 8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Drew A. Kelley/Philharmonic Society of Orange County; Fingal’s Cave: Royal Collection Trust; Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff portrait: Wikimedia Commons; Clara Wieck: Larousse; Rachmaninoff working: World History Encyclopaedia.

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