A programme of durable works from the second half of the 19th-century may present few challenges to any established professional orchestra, and certainly not to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in its current form. At first glance, the most unusual aspect of this running order was the pairing of Saint-Saëns' most popular piano concerto and Brahms’ least popular symphony, with Debussy’s most recognisable orchestral piece as an opener. Perhaps not an overexciting prospect? 

Cristian Mandeal © Hazard Chase
Cristian Mandeal
© Hazard Chase

Maybe not. But it's salutary to be reminded that the opening flute melody of the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is by far the most famous part of the work: its mood of generalised langour enlivened by moments of intense sensuality are all the more remarkable for being so compactly contained within the space of ten minutes and this was a very efficient, if not wholly absorbing account of the piece, under conductor Cristian Mandeal, which held the attention even if it didn't touch the spirit. This did somewhat set the tone for the evening: comptetence and solidity rather than inspiration.

Saint-Saëns' soundworld is very much that of the late 19th century, of a piece with the poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine, the taste of absinthe and the smell of incense: a typically fin de siècle mix of the sacred and the profane. "It begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach!’, quipped Zygmunt Stojowski after the 1868 première of the hastily composed Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor and its easy to see what he meant. It says a lot about the composer’s skill that so many contrasting moods could be crammed into a short timespan (at around 25 minutes, it is the shortest of his five piano concerti) without noticeably jarring changes of mood. The long improvisatory section with which the work begins gives a false sense of the work’s overall character and certainly doesn’t prepare an audience for the high-spirits of the gambolling conclusion. The challenge for the pianist is to make a convincing case for each of the moods in the telescoped timeframe allowed to him. Ian Fountain proved himself more than equal to the task, establishing himself as a strong personality in the opening cadenza and charging through the remaining two movements with an equivalent dash. This is not a profound work, more a vehicle for pianistic virtuosity in the way of the Liszt concerti. Fountain raced through the helter-skelter final movement with suave, unperspiring élan: a thrilling display of fireworks in an incendiary work.

There is, it has been asserted, a good reason why Brahms’ Third is the least-played of his symphonies. It ends quietly, thus denying the conductor the noisy, instantaneous ovation that the others, with their decisive endings, guarantee. Unlike the Saint-Saëns, this is a work of considerable depth and varied emotions, many of them elusive and difficult to locate; so it was a shame that Mandeal so badly miscalculated the opening of the first movement, getting proceedings off to a shaky start, with the exultant chorale theme uncertainly articulated. Matters didn't improve much in the second movement, which made no particular impression; it was only in the autumnal third movement that orchestra and conductor seemed to find accord, bringing out the subtlety of Brahms' string writing and the great repeated yearning melody that carries the movement forward. This level of inspiration was maintained into the final movement which Mandeal and the orchestra brought vividly to life, concluding on an appropriate note of ambiguous calm.