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Review: RLPO and Nobuyuki Tsujii present Rhapsody ****1/2

First there was the muscular lyricism of Julian Rachlin’s Brahms Violin Concerto matched with a vibrant and colourful Enigma Variations, then, last week, a storming Turangalila.

Now the RLPO and Vasily Petrenko appear to have made it a hat-trick with a triumphant Russian double act of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, delivered with stirring intensity, wit and panache.

Hope Street audiences always expect something special, but even so, it seems the Phil has shot out of the 2018 starting blocks in quite some style.

They were joined by Japanese superstar pianist, and firm Liverpool favourite, the charmingly and disarmingly modest Nobuyuki Tsujii, who attracted a number of Japanese fans for a chilly February Thursday.

The 29-year-old, blind from birth, has become a regular collaborator with the RLPO since he made his Phil debut in 2014, and is about to embark on a second Japanese tour with Petrenko and the band.

Here, those of us not lucky enough to be Tokyo-bound were given a taste of what audiences can expect in the land of the rising sun in May, with Nobu and the RLPO delivering an animated and crisply sparkling Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The perky introduction be what you immediately hum if you think about the piece, but here the slower central variations were particularly beautifully played, with some delicate oboe work from Jonathan Small and leader Adi Brett’s sweet-singing violin.

The famous 18th variation swept along in romantic fashion, while Nobu made the technically tricky final variation (the one Rachmaninov played after fortifying himself with crème de menthe) appear gloriously effortless.

Above: Vasily Petrenko. Photo by Mark McNulty. Top: Nobuyuki Tsujii © Yuji Hori

He’s back on Sunday afternoon – in a concert being streamed on Facebook Live – with Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

The Rhapsody was paired with a taut and exciting performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, considered a cry for help from a conflicted soul but also full of mellow cello, lush melodies and a domino run of pizzicato strings, as well as the ominous musical sound of fate.

After 12 years together the Phil is well able to read and react to every nuance of Petrenko’s conducting, from sweeping arms to a Roger Moore raised eyebrow, and that control was evident, not least in a very fine diminuendo and radiant crescendo in the opening andante, a movement full of thrilling drama and energy.

A warm and rather lovely andantino and a clever presto passage in the scherzo, and there was plenty of energy in reserve to carry the piece through to a satisfyingly triumphant and frenetic finale.

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