Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Symphony no. 21 in F sharp minor may not set box offices alight, but it provided a fitting opener to an evening of otherwise popular Russian classics. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s guest conductor was Kahchun Wong who gave a quite cool but intriguing performance. He was not afraid to push the tempos of this expansive one movement symphony but that didn’t reduce its expressive qualities; the slightly austere aspects were communicative without being excessively sentimental — the music spoke for itself. From the opening clarinet solo, and the first and second subjects of the work, Wong made the textures crisp and the phrasing exquisite, which prevailed to the closing bars in which he created a magical, mysterious ambience.  

Kahchun Wong
© Wesley Storey

After the coolness of Myaskovsky came the heart-on-sleeve Russian romanticism from Benjamin Grosvenor, in a composition which needs no introduction — Rachmaninov’s evergreen Second Piano Concerto, displaying plenty of detailed articulation and nuance. From those all too familiar opening chords it was the bass notes and the voicing which stood out; this was obviously going to be an interpretation that would be very distinctive. 

Wong followed Grosvenor, following his cues and quite literally running with them. The tempos of the outer movements were brisk, the gentle inner movement was beautifully executed, with woodwind solos superbly shaped, and Grosvenor alternated his role as accompanist and soloist with effortless ease. The final movement pulled away from the buffers with caution. This was short lived; as the momentum gathered, the pace quickened, increasing the intensity and excitement. This finale was certainly on the express tracks, whilst it felt it could have slipped quite easily off the rails, it was undoubtedly exhilarating. Before the final bar, members of the audience were already on their feet. 

A carefully considered encore followed, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau bridging the gap between the Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky. Grosvenor's execution of this was beautiful, however it did highlight the lack of projection and clarity in the piano’s upper register. This had been noticeable in the Rachmaninov too, but with the detail Grosvenor had executed in the middle and lower register in his left hand it compensated sufficiently. It was difficult to attain whether this was an idiosyncrasy of the instrument or individual choice, but with just a little more treble sparkle both the Rachmaninov and Ravel would have gleamed with a high gloss rather than a matt finish. 

Benjamin Grosvenor, Kahchun Wong and the RLPO
© Wesley Storey

Wong’s vision for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was quite remarkable. It’s a work I’ve heard many times, in many halls, with different orchestras and conductors, but this was without doubt the most impressive and exciting I’ve ever heard. Again Wong pushed the speeds a little, the clarity of the string textures was consistently clear and crisp, and while there was vibrato, it was restrained, keeping the sound pleasantly transparent. The opening Promenade was certainly more of a speedy walk than a leisurely jaunt, but the shaping of the phrases brought much interest. The darker moments stood out for the intensity of emotion as in The Gnome, Catacombs and The Hut on Hen's Legs. One of the most expressive and evocative movements was The Old Castle, with eloquent phrasing and ethereal strings. The final picture – The Great Gate of Kiev – was awe-inspiring in its majestic splendour, the huge orchestral sound possessing a massive sense of scale. Judicious use of the RLPO’s  E flat church bell added something rather special in what was a towering conclusion.