Royal Festival Hall, London
Following the replacement of the originally announced soloist in the performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto at the centre of this Philharmonia programme under Vasily Petrenko, the replacement himself became unwell. In the event, the work was taken over by the Norwegian Henning Kraggerud, whose interpretation proved to be very special.
From a technical point of view, none of the standard concertos for violin is more daunting than the Sibelius. The composer himself could take advantage of his own in-depth knowledge of an instrument on which he had once aspired to be a soloist. Though he had dropped that ambition by the time he wrote the concerto in 1903, he wasn't about to make life easy for his erstwhile colleagues. It has tremendous difficulties, but there are quite a few players who can get on top of them. Kraggerud went further, not in making them sound easy, but rather in maintaining the musical tensions inherent within them throughout his commanding playing. Founded on a firm, forward tone that nevertheless ranged widely in dynamics and expressive intention, he held close to the soul of the piece, exploring its intensity and sense of inwardness and isolation.
The rest of the concert was on a similar level. Petrenko began with a purposeful account of Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Weber. Its combination of brilliance of attack with sureness of characterisation allowed the composer's most inventively entertaining piece to shine.
The second half consisted of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, a dark and fantastical sequence in which the sinister and the celebratory interact. With the Philharmonia players on unbeatable form, the surface was immaculately presented. But the performance went deeper, Petrenko's subtle finessing of tempo and balance flaunting its vivid ambiguities and striking contradictions.
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