In a packed Philharmonic Hall there was an electric atmosphere in anticipation of Rachmaninov’s knuckle-breaking Third Piano Concerto. Anticipation hung in the air upon the eventual arrival of the fashionably late pianist Sergio Tiempo, joined by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Domingo Hindoyan

Sergio Tiempo
© Sussie Ahlburg

From both orchestra and pianist the tone was bright, certain and surefooted, the darker hues of the D minor brushed aside with no sense of mystery. This was sure to be intriguing Rachmaninov. The orchestral colours of the opening movement were cool, and at times icy... more Rachmaninov in Siberia.

From the first flourish there was no disappointment with Tiempo’s virtuosity, which was abundantly clear. His articulation was crisp and clear, with meticulously executed staccato playing. However much the sense of mystery at the start of this concerto was missing, Tiempo was a master at extracting the tone of the Steinway’s upper register, cutting through the orchestral textures effortlessly. The first movement cadenza was exciting, just lacking the last word in variety of pianistic colour to make this a completely spellbinding affair. The return of the opening theme displayed the mystery that perhaps should have been in the beginning. Both Tiempo and Hindoyan seemed to have overlooked the “not too much” wording of the composer’s instruction of Allegro ma no tanto which, whilst creating electricity, also changed the overall character of the movement unsympathetically. 

Hindoyan coaxed some wonderful melancholic hues from the RLPO in the second movement Intermezzo. There was a richer palette of colours here and the mood was certainly more sombre and introspective. Tiempo showcased his skill especially by delicately balancing his hands to perfection, demonstrating staggeringly impressive fingerwork with rapid repeats of notes and crystal clear trills, but the technical skill was greater than communication of emotion.

The transition into the third movement was a trifle aggressive, the chords sounding harsh and jabbed rather than staccato from both orchestra and piano. Tiempo’s tone was a little brittle but his endurance was unforgiving to the end. There is no doubt that he has great stage presence and skill, with charisma and charm. The audience were incredibly focused and it was difficult to take one’s eyes off him. As a late replacement for Anna Vinnitskaya it is difficult to ascertain how much preparation he had for this performance; certainly technically highly proficient, but musically not quite what one expected. 

The Rachmaninov took us from the darkness of D minor to the radiance of D major. After the interval, picking up where he had left off was Brahms’ sunniest symphony, the Second; or so we might have expected. Whereas in the opening of the Rachmaninov the minor was made to sound major, the converse happened here. Although in Brahms' introduction the minor is never far away, the opening was certainly clouded. There were some beautiful moments throughout this well-paced performance. Bass weight added to the strings for greater depth of colour, the balance of woodwinds in the first movement was superb, the cantabile cello melodies of the second, the rhythmic vitality and articulation in the third and brass flourishes of the conclusion in the fourth. 

Hindoyan conducted the entire work without a score, giving him maximum freedom. However, at times he was too liberal using rubato which overall took a little something away from Brahms' classical simplicity.