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Reviews

Prom 62: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko
31 Aug 2018

Prom 62: Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic - one concert, two stellar sopranos

A concert programme that offers a ‘Concerto for coloratura soprano’ and four of Richard Strauss’s orchestral songs promises to tick every box on a lover of the soprano voice’s wish-list.

Prom 62: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Adela Zaharia

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

And, the performances by Romanian soprano Adela Zaharia and Swedish soprano Miah Persson in this Prom, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, were certainly satisfying, completely and complementarily.

However, the music that they performed did not hit similar heights. Persson’s Straussian credentials were polished at Garsington this summer where her role debut performance as the Countess in Tim Albery’s production of Capriccio was unanimously acclaimed. Gold, silver and pearl: the adjectives bandied about by the critics suggested that the Three Kings had come to Wormsley. But, such effulgence was retrospectively justified by the sumptuousness, gracefulness and purity with which Persson floated - with glorious freedom, suppleness and coloristic range - through the four songs selected here.

Slightly reduced in forces after the interval, the RLPO glistened with the excited heart-flutterings of a love-inflamed adolescent at the start of ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) - indeed, Persson’s impassioned impetuosity evoked the palpitating ardours of a Cherubino. After the sweet reflectiveness of the first two stanzas of ‘Das Bächlein’ (The Brooklet), the final verse had a wonderful sense of new energy and confident purposefulness, lifted too by the exuberant spiralling in the orchestral texture. In ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow!), Persson crafted the vocal line with simple but pure delicacy, her melody embraced by leader Thelma Handy’s eloquent violin solo as the delicious rubatos of the heaven-aspiring harp and the deep resonance of the bass pizzicatos provided a fulfilling accompaniment. There was a ripening of emotion with the declamatory “Stumm warden wir uns in die Augen schauen” (We shall look mutely into each other’s eyes), and Petrenko exploited the harmonic tensions in the sustained chords until feeling overflowed in the final duet of solo violin and harp; Petrenko dared to diminuendo to a whisper and then to nothing, and then still further into silence. The glories of ‘Zueignung’ were over all too soon; the intensification and apotheosis of the third stanza were thrilling.

Persson BBC.jpgMiah Persson. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Throughout, Persson’s lovely vocal sheen held the Proms audience in still wonderment and joy, though, if one were to quibble, perhaps the soprano might have paid a little more attention to Strauss’s word-painting. There was an occasional verbal-coloristic frisson, as in as ‘Ständchen’, when the dusk fell beneath the linden trees - “Unter den Lindenbaumen” - and Persson’s rich rolling of the ‘r’ - “Und die Rose, wenn sie am Morgen erwacht” - made the flower glow with the night’s rapture; and Strauss’s cadential falling appoggiaturas were discerningly articulated. More of such details would have raised a very fine performance still higher. But, the final phrase of ‘Zueignung’ said it all: “habe Dank!” Be thanked, indeed.

Persson was replacing Diana Damrau who had withdrawn owing to illness, and Damrau had also been the intended soloist in Iain Bell’s Aurora, a BBC co-commission with the RLPO, written for Damrau with whom Bell has collaborated frequently. It fell instead to Romanian soprano Adela Zaharia to present the world premiere. Operalia 2017 winner Zaharia, making her Proms debut here, won acclaim when she stood in for an ailing Damrau last December in Munich, when the latter withdrew from the first performance of the run of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Bayerische Staatsoper. Bell’s exploration of the coloristic mystery and majesty of the aurora borealis was well served by the ease of Zaharia’s flights into the stratosphere; the darkness and strength of her tone in the middle and lower ranges; and by the powerful muscularity, allied with subtle flexibility, of her soprano, which breezed easily over the varied orchestral textures. Such qualities did much to sustain a narrative arc and expressive focus through the three linked movements of Bell’s nocturnal probing and wonderment. Zaharia worked hard to imbue the vocalise of the first movement, ‘Dusk to Darkness: First Glimmers’, with expressive weight and intent, her voice flickering and glittering over orchestral intimations of coming night, beginning coolly and then accruing warmth, to glow with the luminescent strength of the sky’s display of dancing of electrons and photons. She slithered provocatively and fierily - and with impressive precision - through the frolics of ‘Night-time: Lights Come Out to Play’, rising exuberantly to climactic vocal peaks and soaring over the flourishes of full-textured orchestral playfulness. In ‘Dead of Night: Phantom Shadows’, her florid outbursts were delivered with deceptive ease, untroubled by the aggressiveness of the orchestra’s rhythmic repetitions, brassy challenges and percussive onslaughts. And, in the closing stages, as the sustained low pedal dissipated into the ether, Zaharia shaped the voice’s final declaration of the supremacy of light most beautifully.

Petrenko BBC.jpgVasily Petrenko. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

The work itself, I found less convincing. Bell certainly knows how to exploit orchestral timbres and how to tint textures with flashes of colour, light and tactility. The ear was teased with myriad gestures; one could never anticipate from whence or which instrumental voice would speak, sing, stutter or demand, then disappear back into the shimmering mass. Petrenko shaped the evolving hues and episodes with a sure sense of pace and atmosphere, and, particularly in the central movement, ensured that we appreciated the teasing dialogues between voice and orchestra, in a manner of a ‘traditional’ concerto. But, it’s difficult to sustain a sense of expressive focus through twenty minutes of vocalise, however inventive the instrumental effects; and, in a work centring on colour and conflict, it’s a pity that harmony played a less significant role in Bell’s pictorial arsenal. Overall, what I missed most was the mythic poetry of the aurora borealis, though I certainly hope that we get another chance to hear Zaharia perform in the UK soon.

The vocal items were framed by two exuberant scores in which Petrenko inspired some committed and virtuosic playing from the RLPO. Elgar’s In the South opened the Prom with a blast of Mediterranean heat, sunshine and out-of-doors joie de vivre, though it was the tenderness of the strings’ playing during the episode depicting the shepherd’s pastoral idyll - a lovely, warm viola solo from Catherine Marwood - which was most stirring. Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra allowed the RLPO to demonstrate their individual and collective prowess. The Introduzione offered contrasts of blackness and brightness to complement Bell’s night-time vistas, while the snareless side-drum was an exacting master in Giuoco delle coppie. The central Elegia was somewhat restrained, and Petrenko thus did not emphasis the characteristic arch-structure of the work, but the extremes of decorum and boorishness were entertainingly exploited in the Intermezzo interrotto, while in the Finale: Presto Petrenko threw the orchestral caution to the wind in spectacular style. We needed the gentle beauty of the RLPO’s encore - Rachmaninov song, ‘Zdes’ khorosho’ (All is well here), transcribed for orchestra by the orchestra’s principal horn, Timothy Jackson - to remind us that, indeed, all was well.

Claire Seymour

Prom 62: Miah Persson (soprano), Adela Zaharia (soprano), Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Elgar - In the South (Alassio); Iain Bell - Aurora (BBC co-commission: world premiere); Richard Strauss - ‘Ständchen’, ‘Das Bächlein’, ‘Morgen!’, ‘Zueignung’; Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London; Wednesday 29th August 2018.

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