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The week in classical: RPO/ Petrenko; Esther Woo and Yekwon Sunwoo – review

·4-min read

From this autumn, the musical landscape of the UK will experience a seismic shift. Beginning now and stretching over the next two years, six of England’s leading orchestras will see their chief conductors move on. Whether for personal, professional or philosophical reasons, clearly some big names don’t see a future in Brexit Britain.

One who does (while judiciously keeping one foot in Bergen) is Edward Gardner, who tonight will open his first season as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He takes over from Vladimir Jurowski, who has moved to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, a city that will also be welcoming Simon Rattle when he moves to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra after leaving the London Symphony Orchestra in 2023. Rattle has taken German citizenship.

This month, Santtu-Matias Rouvali will replace fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor at the Philharmonia. And in two years’ time, Kazuki Yamada will succeed the inspirational Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – a tragic loss for Britain. The end of freedom of movement has made touring an orchestra a bureaucratic nightmare. No wonder some conductors are seeking opportunities away from these shores.

Sticking with Britain (but keeping his options open in Moscow) is Vasily Petrenko, new music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His first outing last week coincided with the RPO celebrating 75 years since its acrimonious foundation under Sir Thomas Beecham. (He had fallen out with the LPO and started the RPO in direct competition.) Petrenko arrives at the RPO after 15 successful years at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where Venezuela’s Domingo Hindoyan is now in charge. Petrenko won wide acclaim for raising standards at the RLPO and for making several award-winning recordings. Hopes are high that he will do the same at the RPO.

After opening with Delius’s inconsequential overture Over the Hills and Far Away – the first piece the RPO performed in 1946 – the orchestra was joined by the star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason for what has become his calling card, Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year has matured into this work, and his performance was far more nuanced and profound than the 2019 recording he made with the LSO, with Petrenko giving him lots of space to shine.

Then came the shock of the evening – amplification. Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is a fabulously showy choral work that requires about 150 singers to cut through the opulent orchestration. The Philharmonia Chorus mustered 112. Apparently, Petrenko felt they needed some help at the Royal Albert Hall, so microphones were dotted across the platform. The effect was startling, with the voices disconcertingly pushed right to the front of the sound. While this undoubtedly enhanced the choir, it also made them very exposed. There was nowhere to hide, so it’s to their credit that they sang so well, telling of the downfall of Babylon with exciting verve and crystal-clear diction.

The one bass-baritone who needs no enhancement is Bryn Terfel, who electrified with his descriptions of the lavish riches of Babylon and the demise of King Belshazzar, chillingly reciting the writing on the wall: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Amplification aside, there was little wanting about the vital energy of Petrenko’s reading. It’s a promising start.

An intriguing new partnership was created at the Wigmore Hall last week between the American violinist Esther Yoo and South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo. It’s early days, but this debut recital, ranging far and wide across the repertoire, showed that they will be difficult to ignore. They dismissed Beethoven’s Sonata No 7 in C minor, Op 30 with an almost autocratic sense of ownership, Sunwoo’s characterful, incisive playing driving the tempi in the opening allegro.

Esther Yoo and Yekwon Sunwoo at Wigmore Hall.
Esther Yoo and Yekwon Sunwoo at Wigmore Hall. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

While Yoo has the sweetest upper register, her tone tended towards a bleak dryness in the second movement, which was strangely at odds with its cantabile writing but fitting for the scherzo that followed it. That rawness also found a place in their impassioned and uncompromising reading of Debussy’s Sonata in G minor, and while they never quite captured the capriciousness of the second movement, its sensuous, descending motif was beautifully done.

There are warmer-toned violinists on the circuit, but few can match Yoo for sheer technique, dazzlingly displayed in Kreisler’s showcase Recitativo und Scherzo-Caprice. Sunwoo answered with indulgent transcriptions of Richard Strauss’s Morgen!, Op 27 and Ständchen, Op 17 that served as a taster to a triumphant interpretation of Strauss’s mighty Violin Sonata in E flat. Definitely a duo to watch.

Star ratings (out of five)
RRPO/Petrenko
★★★★
Esther Yoo, Yekwon Sunwoo
★★★★

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