In the five years since Vasily Petrenko became chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra they have together demonstrated rare finesse and confidence in a wide repertoire. Music from Petrenko’s native Russia has understandably done well, but he has also proved a natural Elgarian. Now he adds another string to his bow: Mahler.
Sir Charles Groves stamped the composer on to Liverpool’s consciousness in the 1960s with a pioneering cycle of symphonies that had the impressionable young Simon Rattle smitten. Petrenko has taken advantage of the 2010-11 Mahler double anniversary – 150 years since Mahler’s birth (1860) and 100 since his death (1911) – with a similar marathon, and if this account of the Seventh Symphony is any guide, he has given Liverpool something more to be proud of. Like the music itself, it was a mercurial, multifaceted performance, full of deftly sketched colours and moods, and all the more potent for the orchestra’s characterful playing – never blowsy or undernourished, and always alert to Mahler’s quicksilver inspiration.
But the most notable quality was Petrenko’s seamless grasp of tempo, managing the myriad transitions with a fluency that eludes many more experienced conductors. That, and his flexibility of phrasing, tapped into the music’s gut – a wonderful marriage of head and heart, freedom and control. The interpretation was very much in the Classical-Romantic mould, promoting the symphony’s structural integrity and lyrical inspiration over its garish, episodic qualities.
The best came first, in an opening adagio-allegro movement that built an unstoppable head of steam, underlining how skilfully Petrenko places his crescendos. The first Nachtmusik showcased the orchestra’s softer edges, the scherzo its unshowy virtuosity. Petrenko’s only misjudgment was his neutral tempo for the second Nachtmusik, which sagged, but he compensated with a firecracker finale, the graveyard of most performances of this work.
Before the interval Alina Ibragimova, a Russian-born violinist increasingly noticeable on the UK concert scene, was soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 4. She lent it her sweet, slender, feminine tone in a typically unmannered performance that did not have quite enough to say.