Opinion remains divided over the recent revamp of Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, particularly its effect on the much-prized sound of the RLPO strings, but Thursday's programme (repeated Friday) transcended any question of acoustic nuance, showcasing the orchestra in scintillating form, the strings sounding as lush and tangibly warm as ever.

Gustavo Gimeno © Marco Borggreve
Gustavo Gimeno
© Marco Borggreve
Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno marked his Liverpool debut with this collection of four Exotic Tales, transporting the listener to places both real and imagined, from Romania and Belle Époque Paris to the fabled realms of ancient Persia.

Gimeno's cool, almost insouciant presence and distinctive conducting style – characterised by a remarkably expressive and dexterous left hand – served him well in this repertoire, and despite one or two slightly tenuous entries, rapport between orchestra and conductor was assured with Gimeno proving he had the full measure of every piece and of the resources at his disposal.

The programme began with Ligeti's Concerto Românesc of 1951. On the surface at least, this exuberant romp bears little relation to the language we associate with the composer's mature works; rather, it provides an autobiographical glimpse of a more youthful Ligeti before his exile to the West: of his immersion in Romanian folk song tradition and his fascination for the revelries and music of village bands with their indigenous harmonic dissonances, the emulation of which led to the concerto's veto by the Soviet regime and an elapse of two decades before the first performance. Whilst aspects of Ligeti's orchestration foretell something of what was to come, it is the immediacy of his surroundings which is so redolently evoked; of dance and folksong and of the language of his teacher, Bartók. Tonight's performance was first rate, the landscape of instrumental characters populated by superb solo turns: piccolo in the second movement, echoing horns in the third and wailing clarinet and gypsy fiddle with drumming double bass effects in the riotously frenetic finale.

“This is the amusing aspect of my art” – so wrote Fauré of the Pavane in F sharp minor, perhaps hinting at the relative ease of its composition in comparison to his attempts at symphonic-scale work. Without possessing quite the transcendental beauty of his Requiem, it remains one of the most loved and performed examples of pieces in the tradition of the French mélodie and no less effective in this version without voices. Gimeno's expressive left hand was most evident in this piece and proved a highly effective conduit for channelling the Pavane's graceful melancholic dance and undulating melodic character.

Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No 1 in A Minor was written in 1872, coinciding with the first flowering of the Belle Époque as well as with the emergence of the cello as a fully-fledged Romantic solo instrument. The three movements are played without pause: a central minuet, redolent of more classical sensibilities, separates the two outer movements which present the soloist as a dashing, romantic character, with the finale recapitulating the material of the first. Considered to be one of the best - and most difficult - of all cello concertos, it betrays nothing of the restrictions of which the composer complained in writing for the instrument, and indeed in the hands of a performer with the facile virtuosity of Harriet Krijgh, his treatment of it seems effortlessly idiomatic. The 24-year-old Dutch cellist (also making her first Liverpool appearance) made it all look like a walk in the park, breezing through the most athletic passagework with breathtaking dash, but there was real gravitas in her shaping of the concerto's more meditative themes (as in the yearningly lyrical second subject melody of the first movement) and an intuitive connection with conductor and orchestra which was palpable throughout.

The programme concluded with the ultimate in exotic tales: indeed, as musical story-telling goes, it's hard to surpass the rhetorical power of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, but Gimeno's keen grip on its episodic structure allowed the narrative to unfold and the individual character of the movements to be conveyed with a judicious sense of pace and deft navigation of the shifting tempi. This was an interpretation of power and insight which illuminated the full luxuriant brilliance of Rimsky's orchestration as well as the élan of the performers; soloists were given complete autonomy for improvisatory freedom, as exemplified in The Tale of the Kalendar Prince by the joyously expressive solos on bassoon (Nina Ashton) and clarinet (Matt Hunt). Exquisite playing from flautist Cormac Henry and from Thelma Handy as the eponymous violinist-storyteller further distinguished the performance as a solo and ensemble tour de force. Rapturously received by the audience, it was quite simply one of the most ravishing renditions of Scheherazade one could ever hope to hear, and one which may secure its place in the heart and memory for a while to come.

*****