Liverpool audiences took Vasily Petrenko to their hearts when he was Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (2006–2021) and treat his returns as Conductor Laureate with enthusiasm. This time Petrenko began by addressing the audience to pay tribute to one of his predecessors, Libor Pešek (Chief Conductor 1987–1998) whose death was announced a few days ago.

Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

First they played a short piece by Sir James MacMillan written in memory of Zoe Kitson, former RLPO cor anglais player. For Zoe is for strings, cor anglais and harp. There were beautiful and unusual sounds from the strings, but the focus throughout was on the cor anglais, sensitively played by David Hasler. This was a fitting tribute and a lovely piece that deserves many performances.

Anton Rubinstein’s music is very rarely performed nowadays but he was an extremely prolific composer, writing, amongst other things, twenty operas and six symphonies. Not only that, he founded the St Petersburg Conservatoire (his brother founded the one in Moscow!) and influenced many composers, including Tchaikovsky. Tonight we heard Rubinstein’s Cello Concerto no. 2 in D minor which dates from 1874, in three movements played without breaks and lasting about half an hour.

Star German cellist Alban Gerhardt seems happy exploring the byways of the repertoire. If the emphasis, especially in the first two movements, is on the lyrical side of the instrument, there was still plenty of call for virtuoso playing and Gerhardt delivered both. Petrenko ensured that the balance between orchestra and cello was just right. Gerhardt produced an intriguing ranges of moods and colours. Sometimes solo episodes contrasted with the orchestral contributions but often the cello is supported by the orchestra or emerges from it. There were some particularly nice woodwind touches in the central movement but this concerto belongs to the soloist. The finale is a rondo with a very jolly recurring theme which was presumably based on a Russian folk tune. It made me grin and I could see the soloist smiling broadly too. There were more virtuoso fireworks before this melodious and engaging work came to a close. We don’t hear many 19th-century cello concertos other than those by Schumann, Saint-Saëns and Dvořák. Here is one that could become a favourite.

In the second half, the focus shifted to the orchestra and their conductor. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is a work that became one of Petrenko and the RLPO’s signature works, including a highly acclaimed recording not long after Petrenko arrived in Liverpool. Hearing it live in the Philharmonic Hall was a thrilling experience. The playing of the orchestra was flawless and the rapport between them and their conductor was palpable. Petrenko emphasised the extremes in the dramatic first movement depicting the tormented hero in awe-inspiring Alpine scenery. This contrasted with the lighter texture of the second movement and the end of which the Alpine fairy disappeared in a delicate puff of air. The gentle landscape painting of the slow movement was disrupted by the brooding presence of Manfred himself. The finale was dramatic from the start. The infernal orgy depicted was wild and dangerous but Petrenko kept enough control to make sure it never quite broke down into chaos. The final minutes after the entry of the organ brought reflection on Manfred’s death and the feeling that conflict had at last been resolved.