For their latest concert together the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chief Conductor Domingo Hindoyan returned to the tried and tested format of overture–concerto–symphony and the works to be played were well-known repertoire favourites. This might sound a little dull, but there was nothing run-of-the-mill about this evening’s performances.

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Sergei Babayan
© Kaupo Kikkas

The overture was the one that Mendelssohn wrote in 1839 for a performance in Leipzig of Victor Hugo’s drama Ruy Blas which had been premiered in Paris the previous year. Mendelssohn did not think much of the play but completed the overture to order in just three days. The overture shows no sign of the composer’s dislike of the Hugo, nor of his hurry in writing it. With its portentous opening followed by contrasting brooding and lighter music it proved an ideal concert opener and was given a spirited performance.

The highlight of the evening was the performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor with Armenian-American soloist Sergei Babayan. Memories of other performances of this much-loved concerto were quickly dispelled as Babayan drew us into this ultra-Romantic music from its very first bell-like chords. Babayan’s formidable virtuosity was, of course, impressive, but his performance avoided mere decoration. His torrents of notes served to create a magnificently expressive piece. This is, however, a concerto in which the orchestra is often as prominent as the soloist, if not more so, and here the rapport between Babayan and Hindoyan was clear. We could often see them looking at one another and creating a partnership in which the focus fell now on the piano, now on the orchestra. 

 The dynamics, too were carefully marshalled. The loudest moments were thrilling and the very quiet ones had us listening hard. The surging waves of sound in the largely energetic first movement were followed by a dreamy second movement in which both soloist and orchestra produced some extremely delicate music-making: the reflective melody given first by the flute and then the clarinet was stunning, and indeed a feature of this performance was that many of the orchestral details came into clear focus. Babayan’s incredible fingers dazzled us in the energetic finale. Most of all, soloist and orchestra communicated raw, powerful emotion in a triumphant performance that the audience loved.

How could that be followed? The second half of the concert was taken up with Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor, another staple of the repertoire and another emotionally charged work, but in a very different manner from the Rachmaninov. Brahms famously worked on his First Symphony for over twenty years, labouring under the shadow of Beethoven’s reputation, and the spirit of Beethoven was clearly present in Hindoyan’s reading of the piece, especially in the first movement. There was a certain inexorable Beethovenian logic at work driving the momentum and which was quite engrossing. The richness of sound from the strings that had characterised the Rachmaninov was evident in the Brahms too, and there were some equally fine solo contributions, notably that of the leader of the orchestra, Amarins Wierdsma, in the Andante sostenuto second movement. The finale was particularly gripping with a mysterious, disturbing opening supplanted with a radiant melody ushered in by the RLPO’s fine horns and trombones, taking us to a very positive conclusion.

Hindoyan has performed a lot of Brahms with the RLPO and this was a splendid First. Nevertheless, what will stay with me and surely most of the audience was the glorious account of the Rachmaninov.