The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s securing of Daniel Barenboim as soloist for this concert was a sensational, if surprising, coup, the great pianist’s first visit to Liverpool in over half a century, and a rare expedition north of the Barbican for a figure of such renown. His cancellation due to ill-health was unfortunate for the orchestra, which had succeeded in selling out the hall even at escalated seat prices. Nonetheless, Víkingur Ólafsson proved a triumphant replacement, his performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor perhaps the most compelling I have heard and his encore simply devastating.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Ari Magg

Before that, Witold Lutosławski’s Little Suite offered a taste of the folk influence which Domingo Hindoyan promised would pervade the whole programme in his genial pre-concert address, while spotlighting an array of excellent individual and sectional playing, most memorably from the upper woodwinds and snarling brass in the final dance. By contrast, the strength of the Schumann lay in its gentleness and the most carefully crafted interplay between soloist and orchestra. The concerto’s dreamy opening floated out with exquisitely well blended warmth, setting the tone for a thoughtful and superbly musical reading. The orchestral strings responded in kind to Ólafsson’s playing, his supreme lightness of touch matched by theirs, rarely rising to more than a muscular forte.

The slow movement introduced some watery sunlight in its simple innocence, all the while Hindoyan overseeing meticulous matching of the orchestral sound to Ólafsson’s delicate articulation. Latterly, the finale continued in similarly lithe approach, the music never forced but flowing organically onwards. The last minutes sparkled with well-judged bravura, closing an utterly convincing account of the concerto. In response to a rapturous audience response, Ólafsson offered his condolences on the day’s football results for the city, followed by a remarkable arrangement of the Adagio from JS Bach’s Organ Sonata no. 4 by way of commiseration. With his unwavering control and careful phrasing imitating the sound of the organ with remarkable success, the piano has seldom sounded less percussive, and rarely has an encore been so superbly complimentary to the main course.

If the Schumann had been the very model of restraint, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was the polar opposite. With horns intriguingly placed to Hindoyan’s right and timpani in their place high above the violins to the left, the wall of sound from the brass was floor-shaking from the first blaring ‘Fate’ fanfare. Hindoyan conducted scoreless, instead devoting his energies to demanding ever more and more from his players. The first movement tempest burned with fiery fury, though he still found time to highlight little details such as the ghostlike viola accompaniment to the second theme. The ascents to some thrillingly joyful climaxes came via impeccably coordinated accelerandos and heady crescendos.

The inner movements offered brief respite, though the haunted rubato of the oboe and rich string sound in the second and dizzying pizzicato of the third maintained the sense of evolving drama. The sudden march-like interjections from the woodwinds in the Scherzo were delivered with irrepressible swagger, and it was heartening to see string desk partners smiling to one another as they battled their way through dense pizzicato. The Finale erupted out of the blocks at breakneck speed, percussionist Graham Johns leaping to his feet in synchrony with his first cymbal crash. Hindoyan’s rejection of even a gasp of breath before the second theme added to the breathless pace with electrifying effect, and the last bars charged into the buffers with throttle wide open.