Sometimes you go to a performance of a favourite work with high expectations and for some reasons it just doesn’t work. That was the case for me last night when young Spanish violinist María Dueñas made her Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra debut with Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, conducted by Domingo Hindoyan. Dueñas’ virtuosity was never in question – the ending of the first movement in particular was thrilling – but the mystery and poetry that I always associate with this concerto were missing. Was Dueñas trying to say something new about the work? If so, she did not communicate it to me. There were moments of beauty, especially in the second movement, but these were all too few and far between. Her tone was hard and driven. This performance felt harsh and unrelenting with little variety. Only when the orchestra played alone did the Nordic magic appear. Briefly we got a glimpse of Finnish forests and lakes, but this is a concerto which is very much focused on the soloist and the rapport between Dueñas and the RLPO seemed sadly lacking.

Domingo Hindoyan
© Dead Pixels

Fortunately the rest of the concert was quite different. We started with a rarely played gem by Nielsen, his tone poem Pan and Syrinx. It was written shortly after his Inextinguishable, which Hindoyan and the RLPO performed a few weeks ago. If this evening’s performance was anything to go by, let’s hope that they programme much more Nielsen. We will be in for a treat.

This short piece for large orchestra (it lasts under ten minutes) represents the Greek myth of the god Pan who pursues the nymph Syrinx. In order to escape his clutches, she is transformed into a reed by the river; the god cuts the reed and creates pan pipes. This is no pretty rococo pastoral landscape, however. Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx is aggressive – she is in real danger. Nielsen makes use of woodwinds to tell the tale but also creates memorable contributions for much of the orchestra including the xylophone and striking cello solos at the beginning and the end. Hindoyan and the RLPO brought out the sudden changes of mood and colour with verve.

The second half of the concert consisted of one work, Prokofiev’s mighty Symphony no. 5 in B flat major. It was written as the Second World War was coming to a close and it looked certain that the Allies would be victorious. Prokofiev dedicated his symphony “to the greatness of the human spirit” and it certainly has a predominantly positive feel, though with plenty of irony and unexpected turns along the way. Hindoyan and the RLPO gave us a stunning performance of this showpiece for orchestra written on a grand scale. It is remarkable for the wealth of melodies and the thorough workout it gives to every instrument. 

In his pre-concert recorded talk, Stephen Johnson pointed our attention to the role of the tuba and I found myself noticing how busy the tuba player was... though that was true of every player. Hindoyan ensured that every detail counted (helped by the fine acoustics of the Philharmonic Hall). By the frenzied end, we had been gripped by the drama of the first movement, laughed in the Scherzo, smiled at the suggestions of ballet and film music, been alarmed by sudden outbursts and generally had a good time. Individuals and groups of players were given well-deserved bows by the conductor, who appeared to have enjoyed the symphony as much as I did.