Addressing the audience, prior to taking the podium, conductor Joshua Weilerstein spoke with infectious enthusiasm about this “programme of contrasts”. Each of the three works could not have been be more varied, but within each work there were such differences. He requested the audience read their programmes during the interval to be fully familiar with the wider intricacies of The Rite of Spring being performed later in the programme.

Joshua Weilerstein © Felix Broede
Joshua Weilerstein
© Felix Broede

Premiered in 2016, André Previn’s 15 minute-long orchestral fantasy Can Spring Be Far Behind? was given its first performance in the UK here by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Weilerstein described it as a “montage”, showing the influence of three composers — Korngold, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. In this episodic work, Previn presents the listener with a varied range of musical material which gets minimal development. With moments of cinematic lyricism, strong rhythmic drive and opposing harmonic languages, this constantly evolving piece has frequently changing meters and tempos, which never become incongruous. Its littering of short solos added to the variety of transparent textures, which allowed the RLPO principals their moment in the limelight in this interesting and well-performed piece.

Kirill Gerstein joined Weilerstein for Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major. Both conductor and pianist had a unified vision of the work, prevailing from the first to last notes. Weilerstein’s clear affinity with Manhattan brought an orchestral backdrop of bustling streets and clashing taxi horns to the first movement. New York’s infamous reputation as ‘a city that never sleeps’ was captured evocatively in an intensely hushed second movement. Gerstein was the undoubted star. Knowing how to make his interpretation innovative, intrinsic and authoritative, every intricacy of this piece including the inner melodies and bluesy moments were executed with certainty. Gershwin’s score was enhanced by Gerstein’s moments of stylistic improvisation, as in the piano’s initial entry. The complexities and technical difficulties of this concerto appeared elementary in Gerstein’s capable hands. In the final movement, changing the pianistic colour with the greatest of ease, his staggering dexterity to play the repeated notes with such musicality, accuracy and precision was impressive, the RLPO only just managing to match Gerstein’s speed.

To fully engage with Weilerstein’s vision of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, it was wise to have followed his advice. It’s uncommon and commendable for such a young man to have such a deeply mature and insightful vision into such a complex piece of iconic 20th-century music. The opening solo of the Introduction had a spontaneous freedom, Weilerstein allowing the bassoonist to play with expression evoking birdsong. With restrained but clear conducting, the wind players aided this sense of space without an ounce of rigidity. The Augurs of Spring was true to Stravinsky’s tempo marking, maintaining composure. On reaching the Dance of the Earth, closing Part 1, the reasoning not to peak too early became clear, packing a strong emotional punch. Weilerstein captured a complete sense of mania and hysteria. With such overwhelming emotional intensity, the short pause between parts was welcomed. Part 2 was equally as gripping — dark and sinister. Finding the essence of folksong throughout, Weilerstein cherished the lyrical moments contrasting them vividly against the harmonically austere and rhythmically guttural passages. The playing from the RLPO was meticulous. With the conductor, they magnified the frenzy impact of the Sacrificial Dance, providing an incisively and impassioned climax.

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