Vasily Petrenko (b. 1976) has been leading the Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra since September 2006 and has recently extended
his contract until at least 2015. His work on Merseyside has been
drawing many very enthusiastic notices, including several on MusicWeb
International. However, until now, with the exception of his recording
of Sir John Tavener’s recent Requiem
I’ve not heard any of his performances. If this thrilling disc
is anything to go by then I’ve been missing something.
I’ve long thought that Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances
among his finest works but this new recording really made me sit
up and take fresh notice. For that Petrenko and his orchestra
must take a huge amount of credit. However, the quality of the
recording itself also has much to do with it. I can only describe
the sound on this CD as stunning. By chance, immediately before
I put this new Avie disc in my player I’d been listening to Vladimir
Ashkenazy’s 1983 Decca recording of Symphonic Dances
The Isle of the Dead
. Those are extremely fine performances,
splendidly recorded by Decca in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
On that disc the sound is warm, yet very clear and there’s a good
deal of space round the orchestra – I strongly suspect the orchestra
was set out on the auditorium floor in the empty Concertgebouw.
This Avie recording offers a very different experience for the
sound is closer – though not oppressively so – and very present.
Producer John Fraser and Engineer David A. Pigott have produced
here one of the best recordings of a symphony orchestra that I’ve
heard in a very long time. The orchestra is, as I said, very present
yet very natural also. The recording offers a wide side-to-side
perspective and also very good front-to-back definition. There’s
an abundance of detail to hear – the percussion thrillingly reported
and the brass impressive without ever sounding domineering – yet
without any sense of artificial spotlighting of sections or individual
instruments. With a satisfyingly rich bass foundation and an impressive
dynamic range this recording presents the orchestra in a most
exciting and very musical way. The sound has terrific definition,
not least in the quiet passages, and packs a real punch at climaxes.
Best of all, the recording lets you hear just how impressive the
performances are. For the orchestra there are few hiding places
in Symphonic Dances,
especially when the sound is as clear
and detailed as this, but the RLPO are consistently sure-footed.
The quality of the recording and Petrenko’s care over balance
got my attention from the first bars of Symphonic Dances.
The very opening is light, crisp and delicate after which the
bold string chords have a most impressive weight. Petrenko drives
the music forward with vigour but never overplays his hand. The
saxophone solo (from 3:26) is lovingly phrased, imparting just
the right feeling of wistful nostalgia. In the succeeding passage
(to 5:46) there’s some excellent woodwind playing – and not for
the last time on this disc, either. When the strings take up the
melody it sings gloriously – and between them Petrenko and the
engineers balance the accompaniment of harp and piano perfectly.
The eventual return to the movement’s opening material is at first
suspenseful and then very exciting. Rachmaninov’s self-quotation
from his First Symphony is warmly delivered but without any over-indulgence.
If I have a small criticism it concerns the brevity of the gaps
between the movements. There’s a mere two seconds between the
first and second dances – the Ashkenazy disc has some six seconds
– and only three seconds between the second and third movements.
Just a little more time would have been welcome. The second movement
is a spectral, awkward waltz: in the memorable phrase of annotator
Anthony Bateman “Evening has brought its ghosts”. Petrenko shapes
the music with great imagination, conjuring up for this listener
at least an image of a dimly lit and faded ballroom that has rather
gone to seed. The RLPO strings play splendidly, with plenty of
body to their tone – and their woodwind colleagues offer equally
fine playing. Petrenko is alive to all the nuances and subtle
inflections of Rachmaninov’s music. His is a colourful and well-imagined
reading and he draws really responsive playing from his orchestra.
Among many details that I relished is the nutty tone of the violas
between 7:05 and 7:23 followed by the sound of really hushed violins
and a doleful bassoon.
Once Petrenko reaches the main material of the third dance his
reading has abundant energy but, rightly, there’s more than a
sense of foreboding as well. As a sample of the impressive way
in which soft passages are handled, sample the rather sinister
passage introduced by the bass clarinet (5:04). Shortly afterwards
(6:60 – 9:55) the long, brooding string paragraph, in which the
RLPO players excel, is surely Rachmaninov revisiting his Second
Symphony but with a melancholy air, knowing that those days are
gone for ever. In the last five or six minutes Petrenko urges
his players on to an exciting yet darkly-tinged conclusion. In
these pages the tambourine, tam-tam and xylophone contributions
are magnificently caught by the microphones and the dramatic last
few bars bring a superb performance of the work to a tumultuous
Recently, I was greatly taken with a live performance of The
Isle of the Dead
conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov (see review
I found that reading enthralling but its very expansiveness probably
courts controversy and will not be to all tastes. Petrenko’s reading
is more mainstream, if I may put it that way, in terms of pacing.
His account, at 20:58. lasts for almost the same time as Ashkenazy’s
(20:52) and is similar in length to several other recordings on
my shelves. Mind you, it is salutary to note that the composer’s
own 1929 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra lasts a “mere”
18:05 and even after eighty years that recording still sounds
well – and packs a real interpretative punch!
Petrenko isn’t in the Svetlanov league when it comes to expansiveness
but his interpretation is still full of brooding power – and his
performance affords better playing than we hear on the Svetlanov
disc and, as you’d expect, comes in much better sound. This Liverpool
account establishes a very potent atmosphere right from the outset.
There’s dark grandeur in the playing – and in Petrenko’s conception
of the work. As in Symphonic Dances
the excellence of the
sound supports Petrenko’s balancing of the orchestra magnificently.
Between 7:22 and 7:44, for example, the balance between the cello
tune and the woodwind decoration round it is outstandingly successful.
Later on (8:04 – 9:40) the ear is impressed mightily by sonorous
brass, pounding timpani and weighty strings.
Petrenko builds the piece to an impressive and potent central
climax, thrillingly reported by the recording, but the way he
winds the tension down in the following bars is just as noteworthy.
Later on, he invests the urgent, surging string passage (11:23
- 12:59) with real ardour and the main climax of the piece (around
15:30) is shattering in its intensity. As Charon, the boatman,
rows back across the Styx from the Isle, his work done for now,
the opening music returns and Petrenko controls the sombre conclusion
In a way I wish the disc had ended there; the piece that’s placed
last would have been a more satisfying opener, I believe. The
is a youthful work but a significant achievement nonetheless
by the twenty-year-old composer. Apparently Tchaikovsky admired
the piece and it’s not hard to see why for the scoring is attractive
and the invention is strong. For much of its course the nature
of the music is much lighter than that of the other two works
on the disc. Petrenko conducts with grace and affection but also
does the powerful stretches towards the end very well. In the
first few minutes the principal flute, Cormac Henry, has a lot
of demanding solo work and he shines under the spotlight that
Rachmaninov trains on him. Another example of finesse that caught
my ear was the exquisite passage of string tremolandi
7:04 and 7:39 – it’s details such as this that puts the stamp
of distinction on this release. As a piece The Rock
not be the equal of the other works on this disc but it has many
attractions and it receives a very fine performance here.
As I hope I’ve conveyed, this is an exceptional disc in every
way. It’s one that I’ve enjoyed enormously but I also admire it
greatly as an achievement both on the part of the musicians and
of the engineers. If you’ve wondered why so much fuss is being
made about the work that Vasily Petrenko is doing with the RLPO
then this superb CD should provide the answer. Already, in early
February, this disc is on my shortlist of Recordings of the Year.
One final thought. Could Avie be persuaded to record this team
in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony? If Petrenko and the RLPO could
recapture in a recording of that great, sweeping symphony the
form shown on this disc then the result would be a serious challenge
to the longstanding hegemony of André Previn’s 1973 recording
with the LSO (EMI). Meanwhile, don’t wait to see if that disc
appears. Buy this one – now! I doubt you’ll regret it and I hope
it will excite you as much as it has excited me.
And a further perspective by Rob Barnett:-
Petrenko is quite the star. Young, handsome, rejecting the holy
shibboleths of concert programme construction, idolised, his
reputation and following echo that of the young Stokowski. His image
stares down from advertising hoardings in Merseyside as if he
were a pop star. Is he a construct of the media or is there
substance there as well? Having heard his recordings and revelled
in the RLPO concert in which he included Rachmaninov's The
Bells I am sure that he is more than a mere media phenomenon.
The wonder will be how long he stays with the RLPO. I wonder
what will happen when his extended contract runs out in 2015.
I suspect that he will be able to go anywhere he wishes in the
world - another Salonen, another Rattle – yet more. Meantime
with every concert he affirms and extends Liverpool’s standing
as 2008 City of Culture and its current bid to be England’s
first UNESCO City of Music.
Petrenko has recorded for Naxos but this is my first experience
of Petrenko and Avie. It is all to the good that the music is
close to my heart. Thus we have two fully mature works (Symphonic
Dances and Isle of the Dead) in harness with the
very early tone poem The Rock.
The Symphonic Dances entwined me in the 1970s with a
broadcast of Kondrashin's analogue recording with the Bolshoi
Theatre Orchestra. On journeys between Torquay and Bristol I wore out the cassette in my primitive Philips cassette recorder hooked up Heath Robinson-style to a single speaker in my rust-ridden Morris 1100. I have heard a large number of fine and not
so fine recordings of the work since. This however is masterly
and it is stunningly recorded. The performance catches that
fine balance between the lugubrious, the skull-haunted eschatology
of mortality, romance that teeters on the edge of tears and
the thrumming electricity of the dance. The saxophone is given
its due in the soundscape as is the orchestral piano. Tension
and mordancy have their place especially in the finale. I am
not sure that this reading displaces 'my' Kondrashin as a reference
point but it is very good - at least as good as the Polyansky originally
on Chandos and latterly on Brilliant Classics. Temirkanov and
the St Petersburg Orchestra, recorded by Warners a few years ago at the
Proms, is also well worth hearing.
Petrenko sets the seal on this version by observing the tam-tam
laisser vibrer instruction in the score. The Avie's team's
microphones play the effect up with lush and gloriously saturated
indulgence. They seem to close in on the metallic decay so that
we can relish every moment. While the groaning Dies Irae
in the finale lacks a fully baleful inflection this is a
very fine version indeed.
The Isle of the Dead murmurs and undulates atmospherically.
It lulls and chills. Again this is a very strong reading. As
for The Rock, this early tone poem is redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s
marine fantasies such as Sadko and the Glazunov tone
poems including The Sea. It is a very poetic piece and
despite knowing it well from the recording Previn made with
the LSO during his RCA-1960s I found much that jumped forward
with new impact in this superb reading and recording. It is
the strongest version on disc – at least among the handful I
know. I took to it like a duck to water and was impressed with
the vertiginous Golovanov-like tempo Petrenko adopted. It’s
a very exciting yet delicate reading of a work that could never
be described as mature Rachmaninov. Yet it will appeal strongly
if you enjoy Rimsky’s Sadko, Scheherazade and
Antar; and then there’s a work you might never link with
it: Bax’s Garden of Fand.
Interesting that much of the occluded writing in the two mature
pieces reminded me of Bernard Herrmann in the Rosebud/Xanadu
scenes from Citizen Kane. Such a pity that Herrmann never
got around to recording the Dances - I wonder if the
work is in the CBS 1940s broadcast archives.
Don’t miss out on the Kondrashin Dances –they’re now
on Melodiya. Polyansky is also pretty good on an inexpensive Brilliant
Classics duo (Dances, Isle, Bells and much more). However
there is no competition with this exact coupling. Were you to
be looking for a very healthy modern recording where the performances
and sound vie with each other in excellence then this is certainly
one to go for.