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

In concert – Hanna Hipp, Tiffin Boys Choir, Philharmonia Chorus, RPO / Vasily Petrenko – Mahler: Symphony no.3 @ Royal Albert Hall

Hanna Hipp (mezzo-soprano), Tiffin Boys Choir, Philharmonia Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko

Mahler Symphony no.3 in D minor (1895-6)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 27 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Vasily Petrenko (c) Ben Wright

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra series of those Mahler symphonies featuring voices came to its conclusion this evening with the Third Symphony, the longest and most encompassing of his cycle with its trajectory ranging from the awakening of life to its divine transcendence.

The first part, comprising Mahler lengthiest purely orchestral movement, presents a stern test in terms of its overall pacing and characterization. Vasily Petrenko had its measure right from the opening fanfare, as powerfully intoned by eight horns in unison, via graphic depictions of inanimate nature (its trombone recitative balefully rendered by Matthew Gee) and its march-like reawakening, to the forceful expressive contrast Mahler invests into this extended sonata design as it advances to a joyous peroration that was superbly controlled and projected here.

Although the published score makes no mention, Mahler evidently favoured a lengthy pause before going into the second part. By allowing barely a minute to elapse, Petrenko arguably left insufficient breathing-space (for the audience if not the musicians) and so undersold the effect of what ensues. Not that this Tempo di Menuetto lacked for poise or insouciance – its chamber-like orchestration exuded a confiding intimacy, with the lingering regret at its close deftly implied. No less persuasive was the third movement, a scherzo whose capricious outer sections found purposeful accord with episodes where the offstage post-horn solos (elegantly delivered by Toby Street) unfolded without hint of indulgence; Petrenko mindful to inject a degree of danger into the final return of the opening music as this heads to its fractious close.

Once again, a slightly longer pause than Petrenko allowed might have given listeners time to settle before the closing three movements – (rightly) played without a break. Not that Hanna Hipp, in situ at stage-left, was other than assured in her contribution to the setting of (part of) Friedrich Nietzsche’s Mitternachts-Lied with its presentiment of eternal life; such unforced eloquence abetted by the hushed intensity of the RPO’s playing. The brief if pertinent setting of Es sungen drei Engel offered the necessary contrast, Hipp sounding a note of uncertainty or even doubt in the context of animated singing from the combined children’s and women’s voices. Here, too, Petrenko’s decision to use actual rather than tubular bells added greatly to the aura of child-like though never merely coy innocence with which this music is infused.

On to the finale – an adagio drawing on precedents from Beethoven and Bruckner, and which crowned this performance in all respects. If the flowing tempo that Petrenko adopted initially seemed a little passive, the seamlessness with which conflicting elements were drawn into the discourse, together with the preparation for and the shaping of each climax, on the way to its apotheosis left no doubt as to his identity with this movement. Neither was there any hint of bathos as striding timpani underpinned those closing bars with their intimations of sublimity.

A memorable performance, then, which brought out the sheer scale and ambition of Mahler’s conception while underlining the all-round excellence of the RPO near the end of its second season with Petrenko. Hopefully there will be further Mahler to come from this partnership.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra website. Click on the artist names for more on Hanna Hipp, Tiffin Boys Choir, Philharmonia Chorus and conductor Vasily Petrenko

From closed doors to a heavenly host: The completion of a Mahler symphony cycle

by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.

I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.

And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).

You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.

But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.

And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.

I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.

Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

In concert – Mao Fujita, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko – Dani Howard, Rachmaninov & Holst’s ‘The Planets’


Howard Ellipsis (2021) [RPO Commission: World Premiere]
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Holst The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-17)

Mao Fujita (piano, above), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 3 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo credit (Mao Fujita) Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Getty Images

Great British Music is the theme underlying the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s current series of concerts at Royal Festival Hall – a major work of the earlier 20th century complemented by music elsewhere in Europe and, in this instance, a commission from a young British composer.

Her output widely championed, not least by the RPO’s new music director Vasily Petrenko, Dani Howard is already master of the curtain-raiser. Hence the engaging yet never superficial effect of Ellipsis – her tribute to this orchestra in its 75th anniversary which alludes to various pieces and personages in its history, with a deftness that made for an appealing if not overly memorable listen. Not in doubt, though, was the keen motivic resource with which the piece unfolded from its fanfare-like opening bars towards the fervent apotheosis at its culmination.

Only caution through its origins in borrowed material can have prevented Rachmaninov from designating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as his ‘Fifth Piano Concerto’. Certainly, those volatile mood-swings of its initial 15 variations, inward rapture of the next three then tensile incisiveness of the closing six variations constitute a three-movement design whose Classical proportions are informed by the developmental ingenuity of a later era. Qualities Mao Fujita brought out in notable measure during a performance which lacked little in technical finesse.

One of a handful of pieces whose all-round audacity was the incentive rather than deterrent   to its immediate acceptance, The Planets was destined to prove the defining work of Holst’s career whose sheer impact a century and more has not diminished. Petrenko was evidently keen to emphasize its symphonic dimension through allying its seven movements to a broad consistency of pulse – witness the follow-through from his remorseless while never unduly histrionic take on Mars to his sensuous if never cloying approach to Venus. The former saw a suitably galvanic response from the RPO brass, the latter an elegance and poise from its strings which was no less evident in Petrenko’s lithe Mercury, then a Jupiter whose impetuous outer sections framed an eloquent and unaffected handling of the indelible trio.

Even the (doubtless) spontaneous applause which greeted this most familiar section did not undermine contrast with the emotional starkness of Saturn as it headed towards a climax of wrenching plangency, before finding release in a final stage that was nothing if not cathartic. The only passing disappointment came with Petrenko’s skittish and over-hasty rendering of Uranus, such as forced the martial main theme into a rhythmic straitjacket (for all that the climactic organ glissando made its mark) then detracted from the emptiness of its final bars. Not that this prevented Neptune from casting an otherworldly spell – whether in the modal musing at its start, those ethereal textures near its centre, or the gentle evanescing into which orchestra and wordless voices (the laudable RCM Chamber Choir) withdraw toward its close. If not a revelatory account, this was nevertheless a committed and involving performance that renewed admiration for Holst’s magnum opus as well as reinforcing the overall excellence of the Royal Philharmonic in the early stages of what looks set to be an era of real achievement.

For more information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021-22 season, visit their website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Mao Fujita and Vasily Petrenko.

Talking Heads: Domingo Hindoyan

The new Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra talks to Arcana about his appointment, the importance of an orchestra in its community and what he hopes to bring to the city of Liverpool.

interview by Ben Hogwood

It is a tall order indeed, following Vasily Petrenko onto the conductor’s rostrum at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Domingo Hindoyan is the man chosen to fill the sizeable shoes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor, and he has joined Arcana to chat about the opportunities that lie ahead for him and for one of Britain’s finest orchestras.

He brings with him a positive energy, channelled through the most sonorous of voices. He could easily be mistaken for a baritone singer on this evidence alone, but his perspective as a conductor is brought immediately to the front. We begin by talking about one of his first appointments with the orchestra, his first Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in September this year. On the program were Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, a new piece from Grace-Evangeline Mason (The Imagined Forest), Richard StraussDon Juan and finally Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

The concert received extremely favourable reviews and was a great experience for the Venezuelan conductor himself. “It was a unique moment, a special moment in my career and in my musical life. It was my first concert as chief conductor, and the very special atmosphere of the Proms is unique around all the concert halls in the world.”

We talk about his decision to end with the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. “It is a great piece, and I had a lot of fun working on it, especially comparing it to what Weber wrote with the piano pieces. It is very, very clever, and shows perfectly all the facets of the orchestra, stressing a little bit on the brass section and the percussion. We have a fantastic set of bells, so we could use them in the second Turandot movement. We had a lot of fun. There was of course a link between all these pieces, with the 20th century composers, Strauss and Hindemith, but also an American connection between Hindemith and Dvořák. It is probably not obvious, but we’re talking about two composers who were influenced by the plantation music and by American music. Dvorak was the first one who really developed that to another level, and in the concerto, you don’t see as much as you can in the New World Symphony or the American string quartet, but you have in the second movement all the elements of American music. Hindemith was impressed later with some jazz moments we have in the second movement.”

He speaks very fondly of the Strauss, too. “Don Juan is a masterpiece, a showpiece for the orchestra. It’s a very difficult piece for orchestras, though today a little less as the technical level of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is very high. When you are technically free as the orchestra is, it is a piece that has thousands of colours, situations and emotions that we can explore. Every time I conduct it, I find new things you can do. That’s why it’s a masterpiece – all masterpieces have this characteristic.”

Hindoyan recalls his first visit to Liverpool. “It was not that long ago, in summer 2019. I conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, among other pieces of course. It’s not an easy piece to start a relationship with an orchestra, because every orchestra knows it very well, but I remember that immediately the chemistry was right. The energy was right too, so we could really rehearse in a natural way, as if we knew each other from a long time ago. The second time was also very special, because I could play some Latin American repertoire with a colleague of mine, Pacho Flores, a Venezuelan trumpet player. This was where I conducted Don Juan for the first time with the orchestra, and then I did Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Since the beginning the relationship has been very natural, with a great chemistry. So far it is going very well!”

On meeting an orchestra for the first time, how does a conductor gauge their strengths and common ground? “That’s a very interesting question, because that moment is probably the most important moment together with the concert. I was an orchestral musician, and if you ask a musician how it is when a conductor is with them for the first time, they will always tell you they know after one minute, as soon as they stand on the podium, they know if things will be OK or not. From the conductor’s point of view, it is also the same. From the first upbeat, and the first two or three minutes, you feel how it will go. You are not like a football trainer, where you are going to analyse the team against you with videos and so on. I don’t do this, and I have never met a colleague who does it. After five minutes you understand the strengths and the weaknesses, and then start working your way through with your ear and with your version of the music, the score you have in front of you. You try to achieve the sounds and version you want. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk, you can go with a gesture alone. It is a very interesting side of this job, the psychological contact with and between the musicians. It’s magic, and thanks to the scores and the genius of the composers!”

Domingo is conscious of the city’s fortunate position in having the Philharmonic Hall at their disposal, and when I suggest there is a buzz for classical music in the city, he agrees. “I also felt it! The city is lucky to have its own concert hall, and the orchestra is lucky to have a concert hall where many things happen, and where it is the cultural reference of the city. It is not only the concerts of the Philharmonic, but it is the pop concerts, the small ensembles, the music room – many, many activities. The daily life, after the pandemic, is that almost every day something is happening. These walls are used to beautiful vibrations of music, but one of the things that attracted me most to the orchestra was the community work they do, and how they want to expand to the community what’s happening in the concert hall. It is a symbiosis, from the stage to the community but also from the community to the stage. People get to know the faces of the musicians, the conductors, the guest conductors, and so the orchestra is the baby of the city.”

Hindoyan speaks from personal experience. “I am Venezuelan, and I grew up in Venezuela. I was part of El Sistema, a huge organisation of more than one million people. I studied violin and then conducting in Geneva. We had the idea with the Geneva Conservatory of founding an El Sistema project in Geneva. This year is ten years since we did it, and it’s working very well. It has brought music to some neighbourhoods that would not normally play music. There are two beautiful orchestras, one aged 10 to 16, for beginners – and it worked very well. This is motivation, and in that sense it feels like home to me, because it’s not exclusively about the orchestra. It is about everything, what’s happening with the choir, the kids, the young and contemporary music, pop music. I feel at home in that sense.”

Some adventurous concerts lie ahead for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their new conductor, including an interesting coupling of a new symphony – Roberto Sierra‘s Sixth Symphony – as a companion for Beethoven’s Ninth. “I first met Roberto when I had to do the European premiere of his Trumpet Concerto, and I enjoyed it enormously to analyse the score and see how talented, clean and transparently he can write his ideas. My heart was even more involved because I see he writes with elements of Latin American music, and I love it. When I first asked him, I said, “Roberto, I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth in my first concert in Liverpool, and how many symphonies do you have?” “I have five”, he said. “That’s perfect – you should write the sixth and do as Beethoven did in his Sixth Symphony, a Pastoral” He didn’t name it as a Pastoral, but it is exactly that, a Caribbean Pastoral. It is all about the nature in the Caribbean area, and in Latin America. The first movement is about the cities, the urban craziness of Caracas or Mexico City. The second movement is the Caribbean nights, and then we have a scherzo with a shape of the perfect pastoral symphony. He took the example of Beethoven throughout!”

There is a reunion with Pacho Flores, the trumpeter giving the European premiere of the Concerto Venezolano by Paquito D’Rivera in November. “I think bringing some of the Caribbean to Liverpool in October is a very good idea. This is what I want to bring in general, to bring more of the Latin American repertoire to Liverpool. We have great composers in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, for instance. Many of them were students of Copland, and I really want to play them more here. In building a program I found it better to mix with other folkloric music. I decided to take the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and couple them together. I think for the ear it is better, because you can compare, and you have some freshness. The Bartók Concerto, as we said with the Strauss, is a showpiece for the orchestra too.”

Are there plans afoot for new recordings with the orchestra? “We have some plans. My colleague Vasily has left a great legacy, he has been doing a fantastic job for 15 years. I will record my beloved pieces, those I feel comfortable with, and those I want to explore. I will introduce a lot of the Latin American repertoire and American repertoire that has not been played so often, without excluding anything of the traditional repertoire, that I love myself and I conduct very often too. It is a wide range of repertoire, and we have great plans.”

He reveals that he spoke briefly with Petrenko, his predecessor, before beginning the job. “We did have a short conversation, and we will have a longer one soon, but I am already on the job. Time for conductors is crazy! I had a nice message of welcome, and I was touched to see his last concert on demand. It was a difficult last year for him though because he couldn’t achieve his last season as he wanted. I could not do the transition as we wanted either, so our really first concert with full orchestra was last Sunday.”

Hindoyan is grateful to have a full programme stretching in front of him. “Of course. Every country had its own regulations. My first concert with an audience was last March, with a small audience for the Detroit Symphony. Then in April I had a bigger audience in Utah, but then in Europe we started with a small audience, and here in Liverpool last June I had a very warm audience for the last repertoire we did here. We did Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky Octet, and the trombone concerto by Dani Howard. We had the audience but now finally we have 80 people on stage, and the choir for the Beethoven in October. Finally, we can do music as we used to.”

There is a positive side to be found from the pandemic, however. “I always try! There were two positive things for me. First was the discovery of plenty of repertoire, which didn’t get played very often. Second, the exposure of the orchestras online, with recorded video, was very important, so that people had access to the concerts whenever they want. Social distancing was difficult, but on the other hand it has increased the attention of the players and the conductors. You have to make an extra effort to play together, which means when you start playing close again it is easier. It’s like going to the gym and you have to lift 30 kilos, but in fact you your goal was only 20, That is very light when you lift 30!”

One benefit of the online concerts is the chance for those further afield to see orchestras they would not normally see. “You can watch orchestras in Japan or South America, you can go on tour without travelling! Of course I believe there is nothing like live performance, the energy is never the same. When it is filmed you gain something, especially with opera, but in a symphonic concert there is nothing like the acoustic of the concert hall and the feeling of the sound coming to you directly.”

Domingo Hindoyan conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Roberto Sierra’s Symphony no.6 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’) on Saturday 16 October in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. For tickets, click here

For more information on the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season, including the concert with trumpeter Pacho Flores, head to the orchestra’s website here