The opening night of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2019-20 season was an evening of high romantic passions and celebration of the orchestra’s remarkable achievement in completing their collection of church bells. The season is one of the most ambitious of any British orchestra in several years, as Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko begins his penultimate year at the helm. While most orchestras breathe a sigh of relief at the modest expenses involved in putting on a Beethoven symphony cycle for the composer's 250th anniversary, the RLPO instead turn to the higher demands of Mahler for a full symphony cycle in the 2020 calendar year. The other notable achievement, celebrated tonight, is the acquisition of the last two colossal church bells required to complete its collection. The orchestra thus joins the esteemed company of only a handful of others, including the Royal Concertgebouw, New York and Berlin Philharmonics, in having the facility to play Mahler symphonies and the Symphonie fantastique just as they were meant to be heard.

Vasily Petrenko © Svetlana Tarlova
Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

The honour of opening the season fell to the world premiere of Coalescence by Dani Howard, a work with Straussian overtones in its exploration of man versus nature. The new bells featured prominently as nature’s warnings to mankind and, amid the festive thrill of the music, stark brass interjections represented the arrogance of humans. It was a sparkling, pulsating season opener, and highly topical ahead of a weekend of climate change protests.

No doubt contributing to what looked like a sold-out Philharmonic Hall, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto saw a return to Liverpool for Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. After a couple of years of wildly well received concerts in the region, his talent in the context of his blindness is no less remarkable, but the focus increasingly shifts to his playing. Though orchestral balance with the piano was not always entirely sympathetic, his playing, particularly in the intricate figures of the outer movements, was superbly clean and crisply articulated. The first movement saw the orchestral strings immediately settle into a strikingly velvety sound of very plausibly Russian intensity, and with Petrenko’s carefully measured pacing, it seemed over in a flash. With the whole string section moving as one on their seats, the occasional untidy lapse in precision was largely unimportant.

The wind solos of the slow movement adjusted themselves to the piano line with exquisite sensitivity. It was expansive and spacious, rather than sentimental, but the final bars sang magically. The finale was crisp and terse, saving its greatest outpouring of feeling for the very last big tune. The ovation began a couple of bars before the end, and prompted a spirited encore of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude.

Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique has enjoyed a good year, and will no doubt come out high in Bachtrack’s January statistics. This was one of the best accounts of the piece I’ve heard. It was raucous, wild, tragic and triumphant in turn, and approached by the performers with all the intensity of their successful Shostakovich symphony cycle. With repeats omitted in the first and fourth movements, the first swept along with a heady sense of purpose, and there was a sense of ever rising dramatic tension as the symphony progressed. The orchestra’s new bells rang out proudly – and for the first time in this country, at the correct pitch – from offstage, and the final minutes galloped to a frenzied close. Another encore, of Sir Henry Wood’s arrangement of Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie, gave the bells one last chance to ring out. Bell-tastic, as principal percussionist Graham Johns described it in his entertaining post-concert talk.

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