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 Recording of the Week, Vasily Petrenko conducts Russian and Austrian symphonies and orchestral works

When my colleague Katherine spoke to conductor Vasily Petrenko a year ago about how he was spending lockdown, he mentioned that he was overseeing the edits for several recordings with the two orchestras of which he was (at the time) principal conductor: the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Two of these (Stravinsky and Respighi from Liverpool, and Prokofiev and Myaskovsky symphonies from Oslo) were released last year, and it's a pleasure now to hear the second pair of recordings that he mentioned.

Vasily PetrenkoThe first of these continues the Prokofiev/Myaskovsky combination, with the former's Sixth Symphony alongside the latter's Symphony No. 27. Immediately I was struck by how wonderfully characterful the Oslo winds are, particularly in the opening of the Myaskovsky, where bassoon and bass clarinet solos set the lugubrious mood perfectly. Some of the later passages for oboe and cor anglais very much reminded me of pieces such as Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, and in the lyrical string writing I noticed occasional nods to Tchaikovsky. I also love the timbre that Petrenko draws from the first trumpet, adding just the right amount of vibrato to give it that Russian tinge.

The second movement opens with a sonorous brass chorale, showing off the rich tone of the trombones and tuba. This leads into a sumptuous passage for strings which, with playing full of nobility and warmth, could easily have come straight out of the slow movement of an Elgar symphony. I'm not suggesting it is the most harmonically advanced composition I have ever heard, but in its tender simplicity the whole movement is quite sublime.

It's fascinating to hear the two symphonies side-by-side, for although the Myaskovsky was actually written two years after the Prokofiev, its musical language is noticeably more conservative (perhaps not surprising given that Myaskovsky's composition teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov). Much like the Myaskovsky, the Prokofiev is treated to an immensely vivid performance; from the opening bars (taken at a slightly faster pace than is customary) it's clear this will be an incisive account that relishes in bringing out the tiniest details of Prokofiev's orchestration in all their quirky glory (I can't think of many other pieces where an expressive string melody is doubled by cor anglais and tuba, for example...). It's much freer and more rhapsodic than I was expecting, with Petrenko taking time to linger where appropriate, but never allowing the overall focus to be compromised.

Exotic orchestration, albeit more lush in nature, is also the order of the day with Petrenko's Liverpool disc, presenting music by Austrian composers Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker. Zemlinsky's fantasy, Die Seejungfrau, is based on the Hans Christian Andersen folk tale, The Little Mermaid. It's easy to imagine how this story of a mermaid's unrequited love for a prince whom she has rescued from a shipwreck inspired Zemlinsky to write some extremely evocative music, from the initial brooding depiction of the deep sea to the radiant conclusion as the mermaid is transformed into sea foam and greeted by other spirits who have been similarly renewed.

Schreker's dance-pantomime, Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Infanta's Birthday), tells the story of an ugly dwarf who attempts to woo a beautiful princess but is so horrified by his appearance on catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror that he realises the situation is hopeless and falls to the floor, dying of a broken heart. There are many moments for strings and winds to shine as they play an innocent melody for the Infanta, and there's an exquisite section featuring a solo violin for the dance of the puppets. It's not all sugar-coated sweetness, though, and Petrenko makes sure to bring out the darker moments, with hideous chords as the dwarf spots his own reflection in the mirror and gradually realises that the horrid thing he sees before him is in fact himself.

Petrenko has now relinquished his positions at both orchestras, and so these two albums may well be the final recorded fruits of their respective collaborations. If that is the case, then it is hard to envisage two more impressive testaments to the legacy of his tenure at the helm of both orchestras.

Oslo Philharmonic, Vasily Petrenko

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC