This was Vasily Petrenko’s first appearance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra following the announcement that he becomes music director from the 21-22 season.
The standout item was Ein Heldenleben. The propulsive start, ‘The Hero’ (i.e. Richard Strauss himself) – boasting passionate playing from violins – was thoroughly arresting, as were virtuosic contributions from the brass, and the ‘Hero’s Adversaries’ (the composer’s critics) were vividly conjured. The depiction of ‘The Hero’s Companion’ (Pauline de Ahna, the future Frau Strauss) was distinguished by wonderfully secure and sweet-toned violin solos from Duncan Riddell, skilfully catching the lady’s multi-faceted persona. The brass had further cause for pride in ‘The Hero’s Battlefield’, and during the range of musical self-quotations in the next section, recollecting the Hero’s achievements, the horns were again highly impressive. Intensely moving, as well as superbly played, was ‘The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfilment’, here taking the work to a glorious dying-fall conclusion, and signalling much to look forward to from this new partnership.
Earlier Petrenko had launched Brahms’s D-minor Piano Concerto strikingly, and Denis Kozhukhin’s first entry was direct and unfussy, but as the movement progressed, despite attentive support for him, there was a sense of shapelessness and one or two stasis-like passages. While the Adagio boasted some fine playing from strings and woodwinds, the absence of a singing line meant that the tenderness and bliss that lie at the heart of the music were less in evidence than the music demands. Despite some muscular playing from all in the Finale, its constituent parts did not coalesce into a convincing whole – ponderousness somehow inescapable, as elsewhere. Kozhukhin’s encore, ‘Arietta’ from Grieg’s Opus 12 set of Lyric Pieces, was lovingly played.