“This orchestra is a phenomenon of the city. I’m just a little helper.” Vasily Petrenko was self-effacing in a farewell address that was greeted by rapturous Liverpudlian applause. Since becoming the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s youngest ever Principal Conductor in 2006, he’s helped to build one of the UK’s key orchestral partnerships, with celebrated Rachmaninov, Mahler and Shostakovich cycles, a bucketful of awards and real pizzazz injected back into the city’s orchestral life.

Vasily Petrenko
© Brian Roberts

Petrenko steps aside to be replaced by Domingo Hindoyan – the RLPO hopes it will be as successful as their last first-time Chief. Petrenko meanwhile, drops the ‘L’ from RLPO and heads to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as Music Director; back up North, he becomes the Liverpool orchestra’s Conductor Laureate from September. A story told by leader Thelma Handy in the concert’s closing moments suggests their future relationship will be far from a rose-tinted affair (his final rehearsal involved keeping the first violins behind for a sectional).

Petrenko has been a key figure in the reintroduction of several neglected composers back onto concert programmes. Mieczysław Weinberg, Alexander von Zelimsky and now Franz Schreker have all been subject to focused explorations. Schreker's filmic score Der Geburtstag der Infantin (on Wilde’s 1891 children’s story The Birthday of the Infanta) was on show here, a dancing suite that flows airily through a hotchpotch of musical themes. The central drei Tänzen have flashes of Schoenbergian expressionism, whereas the outer movements have shades of early Wagner and Korngold. It’s difficult to navigate a course through a piece so dedicated to musical plurality, but Petrenko’s delicate approach brought with it vigour and genuine enthusiasm, albeit without too much of its original pantomime energy.

The delicate touches that came across so well in the Schreker could have extended further across the programme. Together, Petrenko and Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski have been dubbed the “dream team” – theirs is another partnership fostered in Liverpool. But though Trpčeski’s light touch through the twisting elongated phrases of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto was a delight, the orchestra regularly overpowered the soloist. Still, it’s not difficult to hear that this is a conductor attuned to the eccentricities of this particular composer – the lilting metric dances, orchestrational oddities and rhythmic crispness were there for all to see, as the RLPO strings responded instinctively to Petrenko’s expression-filled gestures. Some of the best music of the evening came in the expansive second movement, where soloist and orchestra were truly balanced. Dropping sublimely into a rich and expansive C major, it was a tantalising glimpse of what the orchestra is capable of. 

Where Schreker describes his work as a pantomime, William Walton subtitled Façade “an entertainment” – a setting of poems by Edith Sitwell given instrumental accompaniment by Walton. The bitonal solo offerings from the RLPO’s wind section were suitably mischievous, sparring with deft and cheeky low brass lines. The piece sprang to life, forming a sprightly close to an evening that was quickly becoming a celebratory affair.

A standing ovation followed Walton’s suite before two encores: Elgar’s sumptuous Carissima offered a tender farewell, followed by a sprint to the end with Mussorgsky’s thrilling Gopak. The special feeling of orchestra, conductor and city in sync was certainly on show this evening.