In concert – Jennifer Johnston, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko – The Divine Poem

Jennifer Johnston (soprano, above), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)

Deutsch Phantasma (2022) [RLPO co-commission: UK premiere]
Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-5)
Scriabin Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.43 ‘The Divine Poem’ (1902-4)

Philharmonic Hall, London
Thursday 4 May 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

He may now be the orchestra’s conductor laureate, but the 15-year partnership between Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was always tangible in this evening’s concert – its refreshingly different programme summoning the best from both orchestra and conductor.

Co-commissioning music by Bernd Richard Deutsch was an astute move – the Vienna-based composer now in his mid-40s and among the leading composers of his generation. Taking its cue from the Beethoven Frieze which Gustav Klimt devised for the 14th Vienna Secessionist Exhibition in 1902, this 15-minute piece takes a pointedly dialectical route as it evolves from the fractured uncertainty of yearning and suffering, via the cumulative intensity of a struggle against hostile forces, to the attainment of happiness through poetic creation. To what degree this might be a commentary on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as embodied in the three parts of Klimt’s opus) is uncertain, but the motivic ingenuity and orchestral virtuosity of Deutsch’s response can hardly be doubted – not least in a performance as assured and committed as this.

If the indisposition of Adela Zaharia meant the regrettable omission of Strauss’s rarely heard Brentano-Lieder from tonight’s concert (though Petrenko has scheduled them with the Royal Philharmonic next season), hearing Jennifer Johnston in Mahler’s Gesellen-Lieder was by no means a hardship. The four songs, to the composer’s own texts, comprise an overview of his preoccupations (creative and otherwise) in his mid-20s with numerous anticipations of what became his First Symphony. Outlining a delicate interplay of pensiveness and wistfulness in the initial song, Johnston was no less attentive to its successor’s mingling of innocence with experience, and if the surging histrionics of the third song bordered on the melodramatic, the fatalistic procession of the final number felt the more affecting for its restrained eloquence.

Petrenko (above) set down a highly regarded cycle of Scriabin Symphonies over his tenure with the Oslo Philharmonic, and if the RLPO lacked any of that orchestra’s fastidious poise, the sheer verve and energy of its playing more then compensated. Not least in an opening movement whose unfolding can seem longer on ambition than attainment, but which was held together with unforced conviction – the most often prolix development duly emerging with a tautness to make it more than usually emblematic of this work’s metaphysical Struggles as a whole.

Outwardly more compact, the remaining movements require astute and cumulative handling such as these received here. The alternately enchanting and ominous Delights melded into an enfolding yet never amorphous entity, out of which the more animated motion of Divine Play gradually brought together earlier ideas on its way to an apotheosis whose amalgam of the work’s principal themes yielded grandiloquence without undue bathos. Scriabin’s cosmic aspirations thereby seemed the more ‘real’ for being the expression of purely musical forces. An expanded RLPO (its nine horns arrayed across the upper tier of the platform) was heard to advantage in the ambience of Philharmonic Hall, contributions by trumpeter Richard Cowen and leader Thelma Handy enhancing what was an authoritative and memorable performance.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra website. Click on the artist names for more on Jennifer Johnston and conductor Vasily Petrenko, and for more on composer Bernd Richard Deutsch – who also has a dedicated page at his publisher Boosey

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