This attractive and thoughtfully assembled programme was most notable for a high-drama performance of Zemlinksy’s rarely heard Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid, after Hans Christian Andersen), for which Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra made the strongest possible case.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

The large-scale, late Romantic piece is difficult to categorise by genre, lying somewhere between tone poem and symphony. The temptation with less well-trodden corners of the repertoire such as this is to sell it to those who love Strauss or Mahler and draw similarities with the music of better-recognised Viennese masters. Zemlinsky might reasonably spin in his grave at comparisons to Mahler, to whom he lost his beloved betrothed, Alma, and thereafter most of his self-confidence. Despite this trauma, it is hard to find much trace of it in Die Seejungfrau, written shortly in its wake. With four trumpets, four trombones, seven horns and triple or quadruple winds, the music is on a similar canvas to Strauss or Mahler, but in Petrenko’s hands felt completely unique in its voice and soundscape.

The arsenal of heavy brass and the five timpani were put to vigorous use, realising some of Zemlinsky’s most unique touches in the richness of scoring for bass instruments, often combining with piccolo or violins at the far end of the pitch range. There was late Romantic splendour aplenty when called for in the third movement, but there was also high drama in the storm passages and great beauty in the woodwind solos. It was a thrilling account of an unjustly neglected piece, and one hopes Petrenko might bring more Zemlinsky to Liverpool in coming seasons.

Before the interval, Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut played Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with as much flair and individual character as I have heard. The concerto has deep roots in Liverpool, having been commissioned during the composer’s tenure as director of the Philharmonic Society, and premiered here by Joseph Joachim with the composer conducting. Such was the quality of Wildschut’s performance that the promotional material advertising the concert on the grounds of her young age (18) felt a little silly, and as unjust as advertising Zemlinsky on account of his similarity to Mahler or Strauss.

Her tone was bright with an arresting immediacy from the outset, which brought a sparkling sense of life to what is ultimately folk music, adapted by Bruch for symphony orchestra. The more virtuosic passages of violin fireworks were good entertainment, but it was in the almost inaudible quiet which Wildschut and Petrenko masterminded that the most memorable moments came about. Here, with orchestral strings muted to the most negligible whisper, and the tempo broadened, the solo line was profoundly moving in its vulnerability and feather-lightness. There was an easy rapport with the orchestra, interacting neatly with harp and conductor closely, but her ability to hold the auditorium to rapt silence in these passages spoke highly of her musicianship. Like Zemlinsky, here was a unique voice who was more than capable of speaking on her own merits regardless of her age.

The concert began with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, completing the maritime theme. There wasn’t quite the rich character of the rest of the programme, at least not in the opening minutes, but the last pages found plenty of drama in a crisp and attractively classical sound.