In a programme which is very much the “bread and butter” of core repertoire, it can be difficult to say something distinctive, expressive and unique. Whilst the pieces bookending Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto were mostly conventional and very enjoyable, with the odd twist here and there, it was Boris Giltburg who proved he was emperor over Petrenko and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Boris Giltburg
© Sasha Gusov

Rossini’s overture to The Silken Ladder was the opening piece. This was a sprightly audience pleaser. The orchestra were carefully balanced and it fizzed along as sprightly as one may expect. There was a choreographed moment in which at one particular difficult page turn, the first violins stopped, Petrenko signalled for the players to turn the page which they did in unison, then the music continued. It attracted some laughter from the audience, who appreciated this comic interlude.

Giltburg is a Fazioli artist. It is refreshing how pianists are moving away from the tradition of playing Steinways and choosing instruments which better suit their techniques and tone. The tone of a Fazioli is more brittle than a Steinway but the projection from this instrument in Giltburg’s hands was remarkable.

There was absolutely no doubt from the first notes played that it was Giltburg who was driving this rendition, not one of an equal partnership between piano and orchestra but one which duly places the piano central, the orchestra subservient. The opening was bold and commanding with the ascending arpeggios rich with tone. In these introductory flourishes Giltburg proved to be the master of trills, setting the bar very high for what was to become an exceptional performance. The orchestral exposition was full of carefully phrased lines with classical rise and fall. Giltburg continually stole the limelight at every entry. His rhythmic precision and inherent sense of musicality was remarkable, he commanded a whole range of timbres from the piano, with the full spectrum of orchestral colours in his fingertips. Pianissimos were executed without the use of the soft pedal, exemplifying his high level of control and of technical accomplishment. The recap of the exposition was much grander than the opening, relishing the E flat major tonal richness.

The Adagio un poco mosso second movement provided a moment of calm after the whirlwind of the first. The string sound was one of sheer beauty, almost floating. The precision and evenness of Giltburg's trills continued to impress, punctuated by delicate chords on the off-beats. The cantabile melody in the right hand carried beautifully over the most delicate left-hand arpeggios as the texture changed. The transition into the finale evolved naturally, with just a little rubato aiding the sense of spontaneity, but with a strong awareness of the rhythm and the shape of the phrase. The Allegro finale, was restrained. What it lacked in drive it made up for with clear articulation, both on the piano and in the orchestra, Giltburg proving that playing as fast as possible is not the best index of virtuosity. Without breaking a sweat on a humid evening, Giltburg was presented with a bouquet of white chrysanthemums by a member of the audience. An contrasting encore followed, Prokofiev’s Suggestion diobolique.

After the interval, Petrenko conducted Mendelssohn’s depiction of Italy in his colourful and charismatic Fourth Symphony. An enlarged body of strings was employed here. Marked Allegro vivace this was taken very literally, but felt more of a manic scooter ride around Naples rather than the radiance of Tuscan sunshine, this combined with the large string section overshadowed the repeated woodwind chords and disappointingly prevented clear articulation. The sense of procession came across well in the Andante con moto. The walking bass clearly articulated, with a sense of solemnity and religious calm, was very welcome after the turbulent first movement. The third movement — a Minuet and Trio, filled with classical poise and elegance – evolved elegantly, with a sense of sophistication, Petrenko barely conducting, allowing the players take the lead. The speed of the final movement Saltarello was terrifying. The RLPO were flawless in their execution and the woodwind shone through with the clarity and precision. A pleasing and mostly impressive performance overall. Petrenko received his gift from a well-wisher, a bunch sunflowers, which he kindly passed to Thelma Handy — leader of the the RLPO, which was more than well deserved.