Reshaping was the theme of this concert: Ralph Vaughan Williams reinventing Thomas Tallis, Respighi constructing a concerto based on plainchant and Mendelssohn responding to the Reformation, complete with protestant chorale. And it was noteworthy for another reason: Vasily Petrenko is RPO’s new Principal Conductor and this was his first concert in that role although he has, of course, conducted RPO many times before.
The opening Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was glorious. The Royal Albert Hall acoustic and the distancing of the nine piece chamber orchestra on a higher level at the back ensured that every note and cadence sang with all the required wistful poignance. The musical rapport between them, the main orchestra and the string quartet at its heart ensured that we heard nuances that no recording ever captures.
Ottorino Respighi’s 1921 Concerto Gregoriano was new to me – and I expect to most of the audience. It gets few outings and this was its first performance at the Proms. It was also a Proms debut for diminutive Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji who is 38 but looks two decades younger. It’s a substantial, ambitious work, often modal and inspired by Gregorian chant. Maybe Respighi tried to pack too much in because it feels pretty indigestible. Perhaps he should have taken the reshaping even further and made it into two concerti. Nonetheless Shoji seemed to play it with aplomb although I have no other performances to compare it with. I liked her beautiful sostenuto double stopping in the Andante and the intriguing passages in the finale when violin and timpani were centre stage (put me in mind of the much later Patricia Kopatchinskaja cadenza for the Beethoven concerto) and another nice bit with horns.
Mendelssohn’s D major symphony, ‘Reformation’ has never quite achieved the popularity of his earlier ones which is a pity because there are some splendid things in it – although it is arguably the most disjointed of Mendelssohn’s first five symphonies. Under Petrenko’s strange, fluid (is he double jointed?), octopus-like finger waving control the chorale ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ was a delight and principal flautist Emer McDonough certainly deserved the applause Petrenko directed her way at the end. There was pleasing lightness from the woodwind in the Allegro vivace and admirable clarity and cohesion from the strings in the Andante. We got a deal of warmth and excitement too partly because of Petrenko’s ability to create – almost choreograph – the quietest possible piano and pianissimo passages.