Spaniard Pablo Gonzalez made his second appearance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in an all-Russian programme of mixed success, pairing a slightly routine Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto with a thrilling account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Pablo Gonzales © D. Vass
Pablo Gonzales
© D. Vass

Gonzalez and soloist H.J. Lim created a solid account of the Rachmaninov, but it showed little of the flair and personality found elsewhere in the concert. The orchestra’s thick, warm string sound underpinned many of the performance’s more successful corners, and the softer passages were generally more convincing than the tuttis, where intensity occasionally seemed lacking. Gonzalez’s unfussy and restrained conducting suggested he was quite happy with a performance which seemed to by shy of excessive emotion. In places there was a suggestion of lack of direction; the second movement, despite many beautiful passages, moved between moods somewhat abruptly.

Nonetheless, there were many very attractive moments in the concerto, and H.J. Lim played with a wonderful balance of subtlety and extroversion. Her accompanying of the woodwind in the second movement, for example, showed a humble flexibility, and her softly elegant phrasing seemed to inspire similar beauty in woodwind solos. She set a furiously brisk tempo for the third movement, and despite having to pull back from this to a degree she maintained a sense of frenetic energy. In the fugal passage this was matched with very well coordinated string playing. When the famous theme made its final appearance after a cadenza flourish from Lim, it was stately, sitting a notch behind impassioned emotion. The coda, at lightning speed, prompted whole-hearted appreciation from the audience.

In Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic setting of the Arabian Nights, the orchestra played a far more personal reading, led brilliantly by Thelma Handy. In her role as the eponymous story-teller, she charmed and beguiled with powerful personality. Without exception, the other soloists were excellent in their various moments.

The highlight was the second movement, which opened with a superbly characterised bassoon solo from Alan Pendlebury before a charming toy-solider-like take on the theme with the addition of percussion. The second subject, with menacing brass, bounced along with many personal stamps from Gonzalez, dropping the strings to sudden pianissimo to excellent effect and leading the movement to a thrilling close.

The first movement’s depiction of the sea rolled and swayed very convincingly, despite the sea being relatively sedate until a dramatic climax. By contrast, the lyrical third movement’s chromaticism had a sinewy sheen in the lower strings. The finale had great energy and drive, the strings alternating well between aggressive bite and smooth legato. Unusual combinations of instruments, such as flute, trumpet and side drum, played with excellent ensemble. The climax saw the ship being wrecked with a roar from the timpani before solo violin closed the work with lovely serenity.

Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla overture had opened the concert, played at a suitably quick tempo, even if the strings occasionally lacked bite. There was brilliant sparkle, though, making for a very exciting opening. The concert as a whole was very satisfying, but one felt that there was slightly more potential to be unlocked in places.

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