The softest pianissimos from pizzicato strings cast a spell over the Liverpool audience in the Philharmonic Hall. Despite the quietness of this opening, the sound of each and every note carried effortlessly. Kahchun Wong’s interpretation of DukasThe Sorcerer's Apprentice was daring and bold. The magic he created with his baton made orchestra and audience hold their breath at each and every rest, and Graham Johns' glockenspiel solo sparkled with the most virulent magic. The reading was paced and measured, which created a darker and altogether more sinister mood, very different from Stokowski’s famous recording for Disney’s Fantasia. This really was a Sorcerer’s Apprentice for adults.  

Denis Kozhukhin
© Marco Borggreve

Wong was joined by pianist Denis Kozhukhin for a spellbinding performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no.3. The playing throughout was assured and effortless and the interpretation restrained but never dull. Both pianist and conductor treated the musical details with such utter respect, and executed them with such precision, one could not fail to be drawn into this thoroughly engaging performance. In all three movements Wong balanced the orchestra to sheer perfection, the soloist always to the fore and never overpowered. The first movement was impressive in its range of dynamics, creating light and shade. It was full of drama: conductor and pianist had the same vision, each episode had its own character – individual, vivid and enchanting. The second movement was atmospheric, moody, ethereal. In the chordal textures of the piano writing the balance between the hands was exquisite, the melody projecting with crystal-clear clarity. Kozhukhin was completely lost in the music, in the birdsong, in the reverie he’d created. There was gentle and effective use of Rubato, which added another dimension to this reading. Without a chance to breathe, they launched straight into a strongly rhythmic final movement. Full of bold colours, this astutely phrased finale was simply dazzling.

Grieg’s "Spring" from Lyric Pieces, was given as encore. The phrasing was simple and delicate, and the judiciously balanced hands allowed the bell-like tone of the melody to carry with purity. 

Barber’s Adagio for Strings opened the second half. The tempo was broad, dynamics reserved, phrases spoke with gravitas. The opening bars said more in just a few notes than some performances of the work ever say. Wong’s conducting was reticent, bringing out all the emotion of the piece with never a hint of cloying sentimentality. The climax in this generously measured adagio was understated and added depth to the interpretation, giving the music a very different, special meaning. The strings of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra were precise in their intonation, and their careful use of different vibrato speeds varied and enhanced each of the colours in the music with delicacy and refinement. 

Bringing the concert to a close was Stravinsky’s 1945 suite The Firebird. The RLPO musicians played confidently, assuredly and seemingly effortlessly. Their performance was flawless. Throughout the whole work, phrasing was precise, articulation from the players immaculate, and the orchestral balance fastidious, allowing the smallest musical details to shine through with clarity. Harp and piano, which can often get lost in the density of the textures, were audible throughout; percussion were balanced and never overpowering; brass and woodwind punctuated with refinement. The introduction was foreboding, shadowy, dark. Wong indicated to the lower strings he wanted more of this sonorous sound world, and they reciprocated. Moving through each of the sections, Wong brought out the characters with a clear vision: he was telling a story. The "Dance of the Princess" was evocative, delicate, with a sense of intimacy. Wong had such economy of movement in the "Infernal Dance", but each gesture had meaning, and the players responded. The strings shone through in the "Lullaby", and just when you thought they could not get any softer, they did, aiding the stillness. The finale opened stately. The middle strings brought through some exceptionally fine detail, the hymn grew with measure and built to the most dignified climax. 

There was an obvious warmth between Wong and the players. He had a vision, taking the audience on the most extraordinary music journey. It was clear he had considered every note, and apart from the Bartók, he conducted the entire evening without a score. Based on tonight’s performance and debut here, Wong must be a serious contender for replacing Petrenko.