There was a near-capacity audience for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concert which included one of the most challenging works of the early 20th century. The whole concert demonstrated (if anyone doubted it) that the RLPO is one of Europe’s finest orchestras. Its Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko may not be flamboyant on the podium but he gets fantastic results from the players.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

First on the programme came Grieg’s ever-popular Peer Gynt Suite no. 1. The familiar first notes of Morning Mood transported us to another place – and surely for most of us it was the mountains and fjords of Norway rather than the African setting of this part of Ibsen’s play for which Grieg wrote the incidental music.The important woodwind solos were played exquisitely. Right from the start it was evident that Petrenko and “the Phil” were going to give us a special performance. The large body of strings played beautifully in the Death of Åse. Petrenko ensured that it was very expressive but with no loss of pace or rhythm. There were nice hints of the exotic in Anitra’s Dance which contrasted with the grotesque but highly entertaining In the Hall of the Mountain King.

Petrenko and the orchestra were joined by Beatrice Rana for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor. In this concerto we can feel Beethoven breaking way from the constraints of classicism while at the same time playing homage to his hero Mozart (and indeed much has been made of this concerto’s relationship with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in the same key). Rana gave an exciting performance, now tender and poetic, now fiery and extravagant. Particularly striking were her exchanges with the orchestra in the first movement. Her cadenza, thunderous and energetic but with lyrical, reflective moments, was stunning. The second movement took us to a different place, often calm and serene, with a lot of opportunity for the soloist to engage directly with the audience, which Rana did magnificently. And then there was the finale with its infectious rondo theme and a good deal of humour (did I detect some echoes of The Magic Flute?) as well as some Beethovenian grandeur. The partnership and balance between soloist and orchestra were just right in this performance with neither outdoing the other. Rana returned for a dazzling encore: Chopin’s Étude Op.25 no. 11.

Sibelius’ astonishing Fourth Symphony was written in dark times in 1910 and 1911, a time of turmoil in Europe and Finland, and when the composer, having had a tumour removed from his throat, had experienced difficulty giving up the cigars and alcohol. Some commentators have related these facts to the music, but it is so uncompromising and monumental that any attempts to describe it in words seems to fall short. Here we have no link to Finnish mythology, no evocation of landscape. Rather, it feels like a force of nature, or perhaps physics, something that just needs to exist. It does not call for affection or admiration, but its absence would diminish us. It feels modern and experimental. Sibelius wrote that it had “absolutely nothing of the circus about it”, distinguishing it from some of the music being written at the same time.

Petrenko’s performance was monumental and magnificent. He drew stunning playing from his orchestra. The dark-hued opening with low strings and the ambiguous tonality of the start set out the predominantly sombre mood. On the rare occasions that something brighter appeared, like the contributions from the glockenspiel, the effect was startling. Whenever a more cheerful atmosphere seemed about to take over, as at the beginning of the second movement, it was soon swallowed up in the gloom. Many players had their own solo contributions to make, which they took splendidly, not least the solo cello, throwing fragments of melody into the mix. By the disturbing conclusion of the symphony, Petrenko had taken us on a remarkable journey. Nothing frivolous, nothing picturesque but deeply serious and moving.