It is an honour indeed to give the opening performance in the International Concert Series here at the NCH, but to open it two years running is a mark of special prestige. Petrenko has this double distinction, though this year he was joined by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with the superlative violinist Ning Feng. 

The programming for this evening's concert had several points of note. Eschewing the usual orchestral menu of a first-half introductory work and concerto, followed by a large-scale symphony in the second, Petrenko selected shorter works of approximately 15 minutes duration. Such comparative brevity, coupled with a strong leaning towards overtly Romantic tonal works (not to mention a piece by one of the founders of the rock band The Police) showed that Petrenko and the RLPO were attempting to appeal to a broader audience base than normal. Nonetheless, the hall, while full-ish, was far from being packed.  

Ning Feng © Felix Broede
Ning Feng
© Felix Broede

If the crowd-pleasing fare wasn't enough to entice the punter, Petrenko's conducting and the fine sensitivities of the RLPO would have been sufficient to garauntee a terrific concert. Right from the solmen opening of the Pilgrim's Chorus of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, the orchestra displayed a remarkable tonal balance and gradation of sound. The intonation of the brass and woodwind was spot on, while the violins throbbed with intensity. The glittering section depicting Venus' court of earthly pleasures had a lovely coquettish quality to it. As the music of the overture became ever more feverish, pushing forward towards its inevitable, all-consuming climax, Petrenko tightly controlled the passion till it was searing with intensity, before allowing it to explode with shocking power. The under-projection from the leader of the orchestra in her solo section, as the music languidly declines, is just a minor quibble and detracts little from such a compelling interpretation of this cathartic overture.

The delights of the first half were not yet exhausted, as up next was the Chinese violinist Ning Feng playing Glazunov's Violin Concerto in A minor. A highly popular and technically challenging work, my only gripe with this concerto was that it is disappointingly brief. I could have happily indulged myself for a further two hours wallowing in the glorious sounds which Feng elicited from his Strad. There are a handful of violinists, both past and present (Heiftz, Perlman, Midori spring to mind) who make their violins sing in an ineffably beautiful, almost celestial manner. On tonight's performance Feng would seem to be part of this exclusive club. Forgoing the bravura inherent in the more technical sections of this concerto, he tossed off the complex double-stopping of the cadenza as if it was child's play. He communicated effortlessly both with the orchestra and the audience, playing with the easy intimacy as one performing for a few friends at home. Indeed, for much of the concerto, a quiet smile played upon his face, quite possibly on account of the felicity caused by listening to such an exquisite instrument at close quarters! The orchestra responded in like manner, listening intently for the balance with the soloist, following his every nuance. 

Post interval, we had the Irish première of Steward Copeland's Poltroons in Paradise (Percussion Concerto). According to the programme notes Copeland has had quite the eclectic music career as a "rock star, acclaimed film score writer, and composer." Certainly the diverse elements of his career could all be noted in his Percussion Concerto tonight. Scored for such recherché instruments such as the Cabasa, bell tree, siren whistles and cow bell, the work is cinematic in its conception. In the words of the composer, it "is the beginning of a story, the cheerful part, about those who ride in on the back of a revolution and discover the temptations of those things against which they had revolted." The four percussionists attacked their solo parts with considerable pep and no little enjoyment. Petrenko seemed in the groove as well, strutting on the podium as quirky snatches of orchestral melody interspersed with catchy rhythmic percussive sections. 

The mood immediately switched to the yearning chromaticism of Scriabin's Réverie, where the sweep and trajectory of this intensely romantic music were expertly crafted by Petrenko. The pause for the orchestra was one of genuine tension and all too briefly the work dissolved into smouldering harmonies. 

Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien made for a satisfying conclusion. Once again the RLPO impressed with a fine balance between the different sections of the orchestra: the brass sung out satisfyingly but not too much over a robust string section. And all this achieved with the minimal of conducting styles: with a nudge of his elbow the point of a phrase was brought out with admirable clarity. The second tarentella which concludes this piece brought the concert to a rousing end.