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Review: RLPO Opening Night ****1/2

September 21, 2018

It’s been quite a week for Eric Lu.

While other 20-year-olds were preparing to go back to college after the summer, the youthful virtuoso from Bedford, Massachusetts, was busy charming the jury (led by Liverpool’s own Paul Lewis) at the prestigious Leeds Piano Competition with a sparkling performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

And then, having taken the top prize, he immediately hotfooted it across the Pennines to make his debut at the Philharmonic Hall, reprising his award-winning performance this time with the RLPO and Vasily Petrenko in this buoyant opening concert of the 2018/18 season.

Liverpool’s new link with the triennial Leeds festival is a welcome addition to the season, even if it meant a very last minute confirmation of the full programme for this first concert (reliant on what the Leeds winner chose to play in the competition).

But as Petrenko pointed out in an introduction to Brahms’ First Symphony after the interval, Lu’s choice of Beethoven turned out to be a perfect combination with the German Romantic’s lauded musical “successor”. But more of that anon.

Physically, Lu is all awkward angles, tall and rake-thin, but there’s nothing awkward or angular about his playing which has an understated elegance.

There are, after all, no grandiose ‘eroics in this most poetic of Ludwig Van’s piano works which is all beauty and no bombast.

And Lu was quietly impressive, his slender fingers rippling with delicacy and crisp dexterity up and down the keyboard while the Phil, under Petrenko, provided cashmere-soft accompaniment.

Vasily Petrenko. Photo by Mark McNulty. Top: Eric Lu. Photo courtesy of Leeds Piano Competition

 

This is the season of Brahms in Hope Street, and the conductor launched the Phil’s ‘Brahms project’, where else, at the beginning with the composer’s first symphony, a work Brahms toiled over for almost two decades.

Schumann, Petrenko told the opening night audience, declared Brahms the savior of German music…”then he died of madness.” No pressure for Brahms then.

The work is part nod to his predecessor (yes, you’ll come out humming Ode to Joy), but part Brahms as his own man, as Petrenko explained, wrestling with the conflict in rhythms and in harmonies.

It opens with a pulsing kettle drum heartbeat over lamenting strings, and a rather lovely melody winding through the woodwind and cellos, with the RLPO playing in easy, expansive fashion.

The andante, played in warm and sinuous fashion, brought both a delightful sliver of oboe solo, and a succulent violin solo for Thelma Handy, while the Phil pulled out all the proverbial stops in a final movement which had both radiance and a blistering finale.

The season is definitely open.

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