Just a day after the end of England’s second lockdown and with Liverpool emerging into Tier 2, which enabled live concerts to take place once more, Vasily Petrenko welcomed a live audience back to the Philharmonic Hall for a concert which looked intriguing on paper and which turned out to be a wonderful experience.

Jennifer Johnston © R T Dunphy
Jennifer Johnston
© R T Dunphy

Why have I not heard Ottorino Respighi’s Il tramonto before? Bachtrack lists no reviews or forthcoming performances. Why is it so rarely performed? It formed the centrepiece of this concert and I was bowled over. It is a setting for mezzo-soprano and strings of a poem by Shelley, The Sunset, or, in Italian, Il tramonto. In richly evocative language it tells of two lovers: he dies in the night (no cause is stated); she lives on in grief, looking after her aged father. Thanks to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for providing the audience with the text, both Shelley’s original poem and the translation set by the composer. Respighi creates a mini-opera lasting about a quarter of an hour in which the soloist leads us through all the emotions of the poem. Jennifer Johnston proved to be an ideal interpreter. In the opening recitative-like section she conveyed the narrative with clarity but when the work became more dramatic she gave us soaring melodic lines and lyrical outpourings. Throughout she enunciated the text clearly but never at the expense of beauty of sound. By the time we reached the closing lines I was utterly enthralled. Johnston was accompanied by 18 string players whose role was largely in the background until after the singer’s final words when they gave a few beautiful moments of reflection on what had gone before.

To start the concert we heard another unusual piece though not quite as rarely performed as the Respighi. This was Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, which gives various members of a small orchestra the opportunity to take the limelight, sometimes alone and sometimes with another instrument. With the orchestra spread across the stage of the Philharmonic Hall – brass on the top tier, percussion, then woodwind and strings on the lowest level – it looked as well as sounded good. Petrenko and the players appeared to revel in this work. It started beautifully with the combination of harp and cello. This was reflected in the final variation when the harp was paired with a double bass. In between we had a mysterious interlude for strings and later one for woodwind, and a series of variations, each expressing a particular mood such as, for example, a humorous variation for flute and (my favourite) a pastoral variation for horn. The whole was rounded off by an exuberant final rondo for the whole orchestra.

The concert concluded with excerpts from Rodion Shchedrin’s gloriously over-the-top take on Bizet: his Carmen Suite. This was originally a ballet score for the composer’s ballerina wife, Maya Plisetskaya. Shchedrin took themes from Bizet’s opera, but as it takes only a few notes of something as familiar as, say, the toreador’s song or the heroine’s habanera, for the listener to be able to continue the tune, he was able to play with the audience’s expectations and interrupt or change the well-known melodies. Moreover, by using an extraordinary orchestra of strings and five percussionists he somewhat distanced himself from Bizet while recreating a new piece originating from the same place. Petrenko played with the audience’s expectations too in a performance in which he communicated the essence of the story in a flamboyant manner.

****1