Bulgarian piano sensation Evgeni Bozhanov and young Polish conductor Marzena Diakun (stepping in for an indisposed Juraj Valčuha) both marked their Liverpool debuts on Thursday with the RLPO, in a programme where virtuosity was ostensibly the main theme. But if there was another, more poignant thread running through the three works, it was in the deeply personal nature of their composition: Beethoven emerging from out of Mozart's shadow with the Third Piano Concerto, Bartók rising from the depths of despair and illness in his Concerto for Orchestra, and a triumphant Richard Strauss cocking a fiercely defiant snook at his critics in the orchestral showpiece, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.

Evgeny Bozhanov © Marco Borggreve
Evgeny Bozhanov
© Marco Borggreve

Strauss is here at the height of his powers, exhibiting true modernism with some of his most imaginative and virtuosic orchestration and, as if in cahoots with his eponymous prankster, he veritably leaps from one instrumental group to another whilst exploiting dissonance to an almost cartoonish level, and all carried off in classical rondo form. For music of such angular and rhythmic athleticism, Diakun's conducting style may have appeared too sweeping and fluid, but the orchestra responded to her direction with immediacy, and despite being driven too relentlessly at times, it was a performance which lost none of the bombastic swagger of Till's adventures.

“The likes of us will never be able to do anything like that.” So remarked an awestruck Beethoven to his pupil, of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, the catalyst for his own concerto in the same key, Op.37. Beethoven may well have been in Mozart's thrall – and there are indeed notable acts of homage in this concerto – but despite the influential precedent, the vision was very much his own, one in which the ushering-in of the Romantic period elides with the bowing-out of the Classical, not least in the virtuosic treatment and the opportunities for exhibiting pianistic display. Bozhanov's particular style of pianism is viscerally expressive without seeming at all industrious, his trademark low and unusually static position at the piano somehow adding to the impression of the notes emerging organically as an extension of himself. And yet it seemed almost counter-intuitive that the low-sprung hand weight could allow such colouristic possibilities: the quietest imaginable sotto voce at the beginning of the Largo, a disarmingly sonorous cantilena later in the movement and powerful forte playing which cut through the tuttis without percussive edge. There is nothing routine about Bozhanov's playing: it's technically and intellectually rigorous yet also capricious and whimsical, the occasional rhythmic precipitousness and unpredictable moment (deftly caught here by Diakun and the orchestra) only adding to the over-arching sense of a true musical poet with an essential playfulness which runs counter to the somewhat imperious façade.

With its joyously soloistic treatment of the orchestra and plethora of outstanding tunes, it is no wonder that the appeal of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra extends even to those who don't normally like the composer's music. On one level, this dazzling and ingeniously expanded concerto grosso can be seen as Bartók's response to the dawning of a new age of virtuosity in the orchestral musician, and it is indeed an important indicator of their reputation at that time that the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave the work's UK première a month after the composer's death, in 1945. More than 70 years on, it remains one of the great tests of the technical élan of an orchestra, a brief supremely met in tonight's performance. The woodwind were on top form with faultless solos throughout (distinguished by the particularly sterling work of flautist Laura Jellicoe) and the brass too excelled, most impressively in the rousing unison at the close of the first movement but also in the sublime double brass quintet chorale in the second and the glorious pesante horn call at the start of the Finale.

But it was the strings which sparked the energy and caught the breath. The presto activity throughout exposed the RLPO strings' fierce technical mettle, notably in the Finale's electrically-charged moto perpetuo, while calmer passages revealed their finesse, most memorably in the violas' ethereal and polished beauty of sound in the fourth movement's rhapsodic melody.

Diakun's watchful eye over the meticulous constructive detail of the work and its pacing never faltered, but it was the strenuous and committed teamwork between conductor and ensemble which distinguished this virile and big-hearted performance.