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Johnston, RLPO, Petrenko, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool | reviews, news & interviews

Johnston, RLPO, Petrenko, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Johnston, RLPO, Petrenko, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Massed Liverpool musicians climb Richard Strauss's mountain with aplomb

Vasily Petrenko: controlling Strauss's Alpine blockbusterMark McNulty

If you’re going to employ tens of extra musicians for Strauss’s gigantic Alpine Symphony, it’s probably just as well that a few other "biggies" are programmed in the same concert. So it was at the Philharmonic Hall, where the Strauss shared the programme with a new orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons as well as a selection of Canteloube’s haunting Songs of the Auvergne. All three pieces are evocations of a place or a season, so this whole concert was almost a musical novel or an orchestrated visit to an art gallery.

The Strauss is a blockbuster of a work, with members of the audience treated not only to one of the most powerful brass line-ups seen at the Philharmonic in recent years, but also to various bits of percussion which rarely see the light of day, such as a wind machine, assorted cowbells and a thunder sheet. Add to that celesta, organ and enough musicians to fill every square inch of platform space and it really was time to fasten your seat belts.

There was also some particularly splendid playing from the serried ranks of brass

An Alpine Symphony is, of course, an emotional rollercoaster. At times, it’s full of joy and within minutes plunges into what feels like despair. Within seconds of conductor Vasily Petrenko raising his baton, it was obvious that this was to be a highly controlled, carefully worked out performance. He certainly coaxed some amazing and unique sounds out of the RLPO, with the high point surely coming at the massive climax following the success on the summit, just before the mists roll in and the whole piece takes something of a downward turn.

The woodwind section deserves a special mention, since there was some particularly sensitive playing from the principal flute, clarinet and oboe players. There was also some particularly splendid work from the serried ranks of brass, in particular the nine horns on stage as well as the 12 others hidden somewhere behind the scenes.

The opening piece was a world première performance of Sergei Abir’s orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s 12 piano pieces that make up The Seasons (“The Months” would be a more accurate title). Four pieces were played: September’s "Hunt", the "Autumn Song" for October, the "Troika" for November and a charming Christmas waltz for the last month of the year.

Jennifer JohnstonTchaikovsky's hunt scene was playful, whimsical almost. There were big brass sounds here, too, a prelude for what was to come in the Strauss. More wistful clarinet playing characterised the "Autumn Song", which collapsed into a charming cello solo as the piece drew to a close. The "Troika" felt really rather staid and never seemed to take off, though there was a lively episode in the middle section of the piece. And then that waltz – laid back, relaxed, but perfectly homely and rather comforting.

The soloist in the Songs of the Auvergne was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston (pictured above by Gisela Schenker), a singer familiar to Liverpool audiences. Hers is a rich, pleasing voice and her delivery seems effortless. The translucent orchestration of the “Bailèro” had her wafting over the orchestra. But that was not always the case. In “Lou bousso” and in “Passo pel prat”, for instance, she felt swamped by the orchestra. But the sheer joy and exuberance of the final piece, “Malurous qu’o uno fenno”, was infectious.

At times, 'An Alpine Symphony' is full of joy and within minutes plunges into what feels like despair

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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