Louis Moreau Gottschalk first symphony A Night In The Tropics was the opening work in this programme from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It was composed in Guadeloupe and premiered in 1860 in Havana and is scored for a very conventional symphony orchestra, but with extra percussion. This visionary piece contains ideas and styles of both Wagner and Astor Piazzolla. The highly romantic harmonic language is combined with Latin American rhythms, sounding almost cinematic. Formed of only two movements, the first Noche en los Tropicos is in ternary-form, containing two gentle outer sections and a grander central one. The strings of the RLPO created a warm sound as they played the long phrases throughout and the cornet solo was commendable. Some of the harmonic progressions are perhaps a little cheesy, which didn’t seem to sit overly comfortable with Vasily Petrenko or his players. The second movement Festa Criolla, very similar to Milhaud’s Le Bœuf sur le toit, sprung to life with a range of percussion which had sat almost silent until now. The programme note commented that Gottschalk notated the initial percussion bars, expecting the percussionists to improvise samba style. There was a restrained carnival feel, in which the playing sounded very safe and well-rehearsed; a worthy an interesting piece given an honourable reading.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Claudia Montero, an Argentinian composer, was in the audience for the world premiere of her concerto for accordion, Vientos del Sur, given by the virtuoso Ksenija Sidorova. This work, a co-commission with the Munich Philharmonic complemented the Gottschalk well. With a similar harmonic language this piece was an enjoyable listen. The work is at the lighter end of the classical spectrum, with more than a few echoes of Piazzolla and his bandoneon concerto. Classically in three movements of quick—slow—quick, the first was played with rhythmic rigidity by the RLPO. The accordion plays throughout and balance between the orchestra and Sidorova was judiciously controlled by Petrenko. There was a commendable passage for string quartet and accordion which provided a moment intimacy. In a cadenza, which was highly expressive, Sidorova seemed completely lost in a pensive musical moment, the orchestra rendered more relaxed and seeming to take her lead.

The second movement is a set of theme and variations and had a strong sense of dances synonymous with Buenos Aries. Sidorova proved her skill at being both soloist and accompanist, backing oboe and and cello with musicality. The final movement pulled the whole work together with elements of the first movement reoccurring here. Sidorova demonstrated her agile playing and incredible skills on this unusual concerto instrument. The conclusion was rousing and the composer was warmly received to the stage.

Over the interval the winds of change blew strongly, gusting across the tropics of the south Atlantic to the Arabian peninsular for the most extraordinary rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Those breezes blew away all the restraint of the first half. Petrenko’s Scheherazade dispensed with the sickly rose-tinted Turkish Delight of many renditions; his reading was full of Arabian spirit told with Russian passion.

Almost dashing on to the podium, Petrenko launched immediately into Rimsky-Korsakov’s evocative showpiece. Dark, full blooded brass set the scene opening “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”. As the movement unfolded it remained bold and exciting with a strong sense of turbulence and drama as Petrenko captained the most evocative voyage effortlessly. Absolute unity between orchestra and conductor was immediately apparent in “The Tale of The Kalendar Prince”. Petrenko used some highly effective rubato here in his colourful storytelling. “The Young Prince and Young Princess” was completely beguiling with a string sound which was rich and luscious. The percussionists impressed here too with their highly detailed and articulate playing. The final movement brimmed with foreboding colour of the inevitable shipwreck. The return of the sea passage glistened with radiance as Sinbad’s Ship sailed majestically over this shimmering sea of dazzling colour.

Petrenko took the essence of the composer’s tempo markings, but didn’t make them sound hurried or rushed, just truly captivating. Thelma Handy – the RLPO’s leader – played with total assurance and flawless technique, creating most convincing storyteller. This performance wasn’t without its occasional blemishes, but these were easily forgiven in this incredibly engaging edge-of-the-seat performance. 


****1