This Royal Liverpool Philharmonic autumnal billing of Brahms and Tchaikovsky titans presented the respective composers’ First Piano Concerto and Sixth Symphony together in a programme characterised as much by orchestra softness as high-drama.

Domingo Hindoyan rehearses the RLPO
© Mark McNulty

The highlight of the evening was Brahms’ D minor piano concerto, with local boy Stephen Hough the soloist. Although the waves of the turbulent opening string line rolled onwards with compelling vigour, it was the softness of the section’s pianissimo in the second theme which was most striking in the early pages. Slender threads of melody rose from the stage, with back desks contributing just as much as front, and wind solos, notably horns later in the movement, responding in kind. This set the tone for much of the evening; although punchiness was never lacking when needed, it was the delicacy of the RLPO’s pianissimos which made both works so moving. The control required to achieve such an arresting serenity in the reconciliatory slow movement was especially striking. It is hard to recall this orchestra’s string section playing so well.  

Hough responded in similar fashion, with no excess of fireworks in the first movement but with unwavering attention to phrasing and articulation. A few subtle surprises of interpretation were thrown in, giving the performance a sense of freshness. The peak of the drama came in the finale, when Domingo Hindoyan perfectly timed a steady acceleration in intensity, the music forging ahead with constantly growing agitation. Beauty and darkness passed in turn, with the discourse between soloist and orchestra always compelling. The violas, placed opposite the first violins, put in a hard shift as the engine room of the string section. When the climax of the movement came, the piano thundered through the last pages. A refreshing Chopin nocturne was an appropriate and soothing encore.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique was a shrewd pairing for the Brahms, even if, as Hough noted in his genial preamble to his encore, there was no love lost between the two composers. Here again, although the most intense moments of the symphony blazed ferociously, it was the quietest passages which left the deepest impression. These moments of near silence in the outer movements, most movingly from an impossibly soft clarinet solo in the first, made the high octane drama of the latter part of the first movement and the tragic optimism of the Allegro molto vivace third all the more stirring. After an elegant 5/4 waltz, the third movement fizzed from the page with irrepressible energy. The finale once again brought the string section’s richness of sound to the fore, and even as the music dissolved into darkness, the double basses’ pulsating heartbeat and pizzicato figure lingered in the air, holding the hall in rapt silence.