Returning to Philharmonic Hall, Andrew Manze, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, brought an interesting programme, which theoretically played to his strengths. Bookending the evening were two orchestral crowd pleasing works, Strauss Don Juan and Sibelius’ ever popular Fifth Symphony. In the centre, either side of the interval, was a new concerto by Anders Hillborg and a Dag Wirén rarity.

Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

Raising the curtain with Don Juan, the raspy brass of the RLPO in the opening of Strauss' passionate tone poem showed great potential, but as the work progressed, those fiery passions never fully ignited. The overall emotions were very much muted, peaks not quite hitting the heights of passion and the more gentle moments lacking sensuality. The strings had warmth and radiance, but lacked the luscious velvet sonorities to be embracing and seductive enough. Despite the wonderfully crafted orchestral playing, Manze’s control was a little too tight, sadly lacking in ravishing ecstasy. While beautifully played, it sat quite uncomfortably against the other Scandinavian works forming the rest of the programme.

New viola concertos don’t appear all that often. In a co-commission with a number of trusts and orchestras, Hillborg’s single-movement concerto proved to be the highlight of the evening. Written for viola player Lawrence Power, this texturally complex work was captivating. At around 18 minutes, in eight sections, scored for strings and winds — including soprano saxophone, trumpets and piano – this work is an ideal length, harmonically complex and very approachable. Opening with an extended, vivacious, highly virtuosic solo, the work grew organically, exploring the range of sounds and textures from the body of strings. Often quite brisk, this intense work had some slower more relaxed moments, the quieter passages bringing contrast and spirituality. Power’s technical assurance was impressive, as was his unflagging endurance. Hillborg was in attendance and was extremely well received by the Liverpool audience.

After the interval came Wirén’s Serenade for Strings, a pleasing work, with echoes of early 20th-century English string music. It’s folk-like melody proved an ear worm and contrasted well with the atonality of Hillborg's concerto. Manze was on very safe territory, making the most of the Haydnesque humour across all four jovial movements. 

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony has a personality all of its own — distinctive, articulate, controlled and unique. Manze clearly understands the music and brought some highly commendable characteristics to many of the parts in the middle of the textures. But despite the superb playing, the performance never really got going. The darker moments of the first movement missed the drama needed to contrast with the brighter passages, while tempo choices lacked the momentum to drive things forward. There was an increase in energy in the closing bars, but this was not Manze at his most insightful. The level of detail in the finale was clear, the phrasing was exemplary, but the conductor held things back once more, resulting in a rather underwhelming conclusion.