Liverpool is one of those rare cities where taxi drivers will comment on the current form of 'The Phil', such is the high esteem in which the UK's oldest orchestra is held locally. The roar after the thundering last notes of Beethoven's hymn to brotherhood was as if Liverpool and Everton had both scored simultaneously. This was a special concert to witness.

A late addition to the evening, not featured in the magnificently full-colour, glossy souvenir programme, was the chorus “Fair is the Bride” from Rossini's William Tell. It was a pleasing, if unusual, pre-amble: neither overblown nor banal, but a short work stylistically a mile away from Mendelssohn and Beethoven, and a small nod to to the Philharmonic Society's first concert in 1840.

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra © Mark McNulty
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© Mark McNulty

The remainder of the programme was identical to the orchestra's 75th anniversary concert in 1915. Mendelssohn's cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht, a setting of Goethe's epic of the same name, resonates with Schiller's Ode an die Freude on some common themes, most obviously on the ideas of everlasting light in the final stanzas of each. Petrenko handled it gently enough to allow the longer narrative to be seen clearly, each of the ten parts full of individual character but also fitting neatly with the whole. The sense of journey to, and emphasis on “dein Licht” at the work's climax, was well sculpted.

The orchestral and choral sound was at once clean textured but also full bodied, and the chorus did well to maintain clean diction. Of the three soloists, baritone Andreas Scheibner made the greatest mark as a commanding Druid Priest, particularly towards the end of the work. Here Petrenko conducted broadly but never brashly, creating a sense of enduring defiance among the druids against the Christian challengers.

In Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Petrenko found an altogether more driven, charged mode for his orchestra and chorus. With the exception of the slow movement, the symphony fizzed the sort of energy one came to expect from his performances of Shostakovich with the orchestra.

From the outset, the first movement was taut and crisp, with powerful interventions from timpani and brass building a strong sense of storminess. The structural logic was laid out clearly again. The clarity of playing, in combination with such power, was most impressive. A tiny degree of this was lost in the second movement, which was taken at breakneck speed. This highlighted the surging one-in-a-bar pulse, and made the central trio all the more breezy and bright. The end of the movement seemed to leave the hall collectively gasping for breath.

The slow movement offered a traditionally slow and richly coloured reprieve. The tutti string playing was full of the cleanest of legatos and the winds responded with great humanity and character. The fourth horn solo rightly received special attention. It was an almighty jolt, then, when Petrenko lunged into the tumult of the finale's opening bars with barely a moment to draw breath. It was a clever piece of theatre, as was the first murmuring of the “Ode to Joy” theme, in the low strings. The famous theme was brilliantly quiet and well controlled, even at Petrenko's brisk pulse. The collective breath-holding of the hall, everybody absolutely still, reflected the magical effect of this.

Scheibner's initial call to the chorus was suitably imposing. As well sung as it was, the subsequent taking up of the “Ode to Joy” by tutti forces suffered to a degree from the briskness of the tempo. The chorus, nonetheless, sang with full heart, creating a huge sound. The soloists, standing just in front of the choir stalls, rather cruelly between timpani and trumpets, worked well both as a unit and individually. Soprano Claire Rutter and mezzo Kathryn Rudge both sang with beautifully rounded tone and fine control later on.

Bryan Register sang his Turkish March with impressive lightness and agility, and in the ensuing fugue Petrenko drove some of the fiercest playing from the orchestra. This was topped only by the final Presto, which was a hurtling, furious affair led by blazing brass and some superb playing from timpanist Neil Hitt. One half expected to see smoke from the violins' bows at the peak of the frenzy. It was a thrilling close to a powerful performance, one which was a suitable party for this very fine orchestra. Here's to the next 175.