thu 30/05/2024

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Philharmonia Chorus, RPO, Petrenko, RFH review - poetic cello, blazing chorus | reviews, news & interviews

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Philharmonia Chorus, RPO, Petrenko, RFH review - poetic cello, blazing chorus

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Philharmonia Chorus, RPO, Petrenko, RFH review - poetic cello, blazing chorus

Atmospheric Elgar and Weinberg, but Rachmaninov's 'The Bells' takes the palm

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAll images by Chris Christodoulou

Purple patches flourished in the first half of this admirable programme: it could hardly have been otherwise given Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s devotion to a new work in his repertoire, and the current strength of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko. Even so, it was the culmination, Rachmaninov’s multifaceted “Choral Symphony” The Bells, which truly dazzled.

It seems so obvious: Petrenko just knows this idiom and is completely at ease with the difficult Rachmaninov rubato. The Philharmonia Chorus was simply electrifying: hard to believe they weren’t professionals with a knockout sound like that.

This, rather than the too church-choiry Tenebrae, is what Pappano needed for his Ravel Daphnis et Chloé, repeated last night over at the Barbican at around the same time. The two masterpieces are only a year apart, and Rachmaninov proves master orchestrator too in the glitttering spirit of delight that frames his opening sleigh-ride. What a punch from the opening choral response to the tenor’s “listen!”, though, and what overwhelming climaxes throughout (pictured below: the men of the Philharmonia Chorus). Men of the Philharmonia ChorusIt takes real power and expression to hold focus in the “Loud Alarm Bells” movement; in Konstantin Balmont’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe, when the voices become the flames in “I want to go higher, to burn higher, to touch the moonbeams”, the effect was one of terrifying levitation. Special kudos to Chorus Master Gavin Carr,

It was satisfying but not tokenistic that the three soloists came from countries or peoples persecuted by Russia (let’s not forget, either, that Rachmaninov was forced into exile). Belarusian tenor Pavel Petrov captured the right bright sweetness about the first movement; Estonian Mirjam Mesak blossomed in the upper reaches for the almost Tristanesque union of “The Mellow Wedding Bells”; and Ukrainian Andrii Kymach, 2019 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, provided bass-baritonal anchoring and a painfully expressive core to “The Mournful Iron Bells”. Petrenko brought an instant a change of colour to the mellow major in Rachmaninov’s almost Mahlerian final transcendence. (Kymach, Mesak and Petrov pictured below with Petrenko and the RPO). Soloists ni Rachmaninov's 'The Bells'The RPO, cutting brass especially, had maximum impact here. It might have had even more for Elgar’s In the South (Alassio), a teeming panorama of the composer’s Italian impressions indebted at times to Strauss’s Don Juan, had Petrenko kept the momentum. As with his performance of the Cockaigne Overture earlier this season, the lyrical passages were too over-loved, though that didn’t stop principal viola Abigail Fenna making the lullaby after all that ancient Roman hurly-burly supremely and simply affecting.

Many in the lively but rather cough-afflicted audience had come to hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and as always they won’t have been disappointed. He’s not resting on his laurels, and needed no reference to the score in his masterly overview of Weinberg’s Cello Concerto. Composed in 1948 in the wake of Stalin’s second big crack-down, via his right-hand man Andrey Zhdanov, on musical freedom of expression, it needn’t have waited in the wings until 1956: everything is direct, clear, more or less untainted by the influence of Shostakovich. I don’t hear the Jewish idiom suggested in the middle movements; the second seems to be a habanera where at last the brass get to strut their stuff, the third hardly demonic or tortured, though not without a dash of the grotesque.

Kanneh-Mason took us straight to the heart of the opening Adagio, which also closes the work: poignant stuff, if not quite as memorable as the main idea, which operates similarly, in the slightly later Fantasia for cello and orchestra. That’s first class; this is perhaps a second-rank work - which is not the same as second-rate – but it could not have had a more sensitive response. Good, too, that the cellist didn’t go for encore flash; Weinberg’s similarly reflective and perhaps more personal Eighteenth Prelude was the perfect rejoinder.

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