Hindemith’s 1942 overture to Cupid and Psyche provided an unconventional opener to this concert, brimming with contrasting colours and textures rather than tunes. This piece of many moods from the playful and whimsical to the considered and serious was perfectly captured by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the careful eye of Vasily Petrenko. In the sparest textures, the players were secure in the direction of the music and rose to the expressive challenges ably. The string playing was exceptionally tight and and the orchestral sound was well balanced in this most interesting piece.

Rachmaninov’s war horse Second Piano Concerto needs no introduction. In this overly familiar work there is nowhere to hide, it’s heart-on-sleeve Russian passion and music Petrenko excels in. Soloist George Li made a calm entrance with an absent looking gaze. Those famous opening chords were well paced, but voiced in an unusual way giving the repeated pedal notes in the bass a phrase shape all of their own, which was intriguing. The movement took a while to settle, but developed a strong sense of ebb and flow. Li brought out much of the left-hand detail, with particular attention to couplet phrases. The rich and warm tone of his playing was never lost in the rich textures thanks to Petrenko’s experience in this repertoire. 

The second movement was everything one would expect. Li didn’t offer anything unique here, but his solos were played with expression and the accompanying passages were performed with sensitivity enhancing the beguiling woodwind solos. Whilst being very precise and exacting, Li didn’t fully capture the most tender moments with the level of emotion one may expect from a more seasoned interpreter. Li’s playing was commendable and admirable with left-hand detail to the fore and as he created rich interplay. Throughout the whole concerto, Li maintained a restrained, serious composure, never breaking into a sweat. Li and Petrenko made minimal contact, almost as if there was complete synchronicity and intuitiveness between them. This was a highly enjoyable performance, impressive in its technical accuracy and assurance.

The audience was treated to an encore of Liszt La Campanella. Li showed again his mastery of left-hand technique, with a clear singing tone and eloquently shaped phrases. This was more emotional than his Rachmaninov and played with a most varied dynamic range. 

After the interval, Petrenko introduced Brahms' Second Symphony describing the composer as “a man of humour and philosophy”. We were left in no doubt about Petrenko’s thoughts on Brahms’ uplifted spirits at the time of composition, inviting us to “enjoy the nature, enjoy the landscape, but there are clouds”. 

The initial themes were stated clearly, utter seriousness, before opening out vivaciously, although Petrenko made sure the clouds and distant thunder were never too far from the horizon. He marked every beat with equal importance and respect as we were led to the summit of each peak, before launching towards the next with youthful excitement. The music had a sense of direction and was devoid of any sentimentally. Petrenko brought out the textures of Brahms’ greatest inspiration – Beethoven – to such an extent at times one could have been hoodwinked into believing one was listening to the Pastoral Symphony.

The Adagio non troppo had a sense of allowing the music to speak, without excessive interpretation, giving the audience freedom to draw their own conclusions to the meaning within. As in the first movement, the cellos and basses relished the rich sororities, whilst keeping vibrato light, allowing the precision of intonation to be admired. An exceptionally folky third movement followed. Not only did Petrenko bring out the Beethovenian elements, but he shaped the music to such an extent it would not have sounded out of place lurking in the midst of the Hungarian Dances. A strongly rhythmic reading, with another sprightly tempo gave an atmosphere of capricious energy in this idealistic alpine landscape, driving the fourth movement to triumphal end. The RLPO met all the challenges asked of them admirably. This performance was refreshingly exhilarating with string playing with an unblemished clarity.