Belied somewhat by its title, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's Fairy Tales was not, in fact, a children's concert; but if you were looking to get in touch with your inner child – or simply in the market for some pre-Christmas musical escapism – Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall last Thursday night was just the place to be. With these concert versions of fairy-tale-themed theatre works, it was a programme certain to please those for whom the fully staged ballet and opera experience can prove hard going.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Excerpts from Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel provided a Germanic counterpoint to Prokofiev's Cinderella (Suite no. 1) and Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty (Act III), with three movements from Act II of the opera opening the concert. It is in these scenes of solace for the lost children (The Sandman's Song, Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime) where innocent wonderment meets Wagnerian romanticism, away from the darker, more Grimmsian elements of the piece and where the disarming simplicity of the tunes – with allusions to the Evening Prayer recurring throughout – never fails to move. In this adaptation, with instruments replacing the voices, Humperdinck's great melodic gifts were no less affecting for not being sung, and with the RLPO's customary attention to instrumental colour, the sumptuousness of the orchestration and the composer's ability to balance light and dark came into sharp focus. The rich bass tones from the brass which underpin the final declamatory statement of the Evening Prayer lent further gravitas to a restrained performance, and only fleetingly did Vasily Petrenko's arm gestures appear superfluous to his finely-attuned reading.

First performed in 1945, Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella undoubtedly proved gloriously colourful and life-affirming succour for the Russian public following the trials of the war. Derived from Charles Perrault's version of the tale with its familiar storybook characters, the work is often mistakenly labelled as 'children's music' and while not as intensely melodramatic as the composer's better-known Romeo and Juliet, it is certainly no less captivating nor less finely orchestrated. The first of three orchestral suites extracted and adapted from the ballet comprises eight movements drawn from the first two acts and charts the story from its beginning up to the fateful midnight hour. Petrenko's very presence lent a Slavic authenticity here and his affinity for this repertoire was evident throughout this riveting interpretation. Clearly relishing the realisation of the score without the practical requirements of the dance, he scrupulously embodied and transfused the rhythmic energy through his own nuanced, high-precision movements; the tempo shifts in the Introduction and the catchy but tricky syncopations in the Shawl Dance seemed meticulously rehearsed and were navigated with the utmost control. Of all Prokofiev's vividly-drawn portrayals, from the caricatured Stepsisters to the exotic Winter Fairy to the conflicting moods of Cinderella herself, the most captivating has to be that of the clock; riotously signalling the midnight hour with lurching brass, screeching winds and 'ticking' woodblocks, it was given full, terrifying force – a truly electrifying end to this chapter from one of the ballet repertoire's most dazzling works.

Another of Perrault's tales provided the premise for Tchaikovsky to create one of his most magical works: “a world of timeless beauty” as Constant Lambert put it, and The Sleeping Beauty did indeed captivate at its première in 1890. Like the Prokofiev, it succeeds as well in its concert version as in the theatre, and this third and final act bears evidence to the composer's astonishing skills of craftsmanship and characterisation, not least the sense of humour, so admired by Stravinsky, in the dances of an augmented cast of Perrault fairytale characters who join in the wedding feast. With a performance clocking up at around 45 minutes, there were one or two momentary lapses of synchronisation in performance towards the end, but these were minor blemishes in an otherwise authoritative account with spot-on tempos and a sustained sense of drama. The exhilaratingly-played introductory march was a stand-out movement as was the pas de caractère of Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat with their feuding strings and woodwind. Solo playing was meticulously observed throughout, most memorably from Cormac Henry and Ben Mellefont, whose immaculate and sparkling flute and clarinet duet in the pas de deux for Princess Florisse and the Bluebird exemplified its brilliant scoring.

Could there have been ballet-lovers in the audience who missed the spectacle of the dance, or the presence of some additional perennial favourites? Probably, and there was no doubt that the encore of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (deliciously phrased by Ian Buckle on celesta) provided a mollifying token sweetmeat of more familiar, seasonal Tchaikovsky: a 'happily ever after' storybook ending for all.