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Review: Elgar Cello Concerto at Philharmonic Hall ****

Tomorrow the RLPO leads massed ranks from Liverpool and Hannover in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in a sell-out concert at Liverpool Cathedral.

Last night the Phil presented a perhaps less overtly obvious, but equally poignant, programme centred around the centenary of the Great War, and with the Philharmonic Hall packed if not to the rafters then certainly in to the choir stalls.

There was, of course, the draw of the hugely talented teenage cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, this season’s young artist in residence at Hope Street, and rising star of the classical world (and who, tomorrow, incidentally, will be performing in the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall).

Kanneh-Mason grew up listening to recordings like that of Jacqueline Du Pre’s sublime reading of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and now he is bringing the composer’s wonderfully elegiac work to the stage himself.

His expressive performance here had a satisfying clarity and a lovely, easy fluidity of phrasing, both through the opening adagio – with that tell-tale spine-tingling burr in its deeply resonant double stopping, and in the whip-quick allegro passages which he tackled with impressive dexterity.

The RLPO meanwhile, under Andrew Manze’s baton, provided beautifully warm and tender support.

So warm and tender in fact that it made Kanneh-Mason’s 400-year-old Amati cello sound somewhat nasal at times, particularly in the faster passages where depth of tone and speed are necessarily tricky bedfellows.

Still, it’s a real pleasure to listen to someone who exudes such a joyous natural talent, and a coup for the Phil to have secured the 19-year-old at the cusp of what is set to be a rapid trajectory to stardom.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the RLPO. Photos by Mark McNulty

As Kanneh-Mason is young artist in residence, so Gary Carpenter is this year’s composer in residence.

Carpenter’s Willie Stock was a 14-18 NOW commission (the body behind the Weeping Window poppies and Liverpool’s Dazzle Ferry among other works), and is a heartfelt tribute to his great uncle who was killed in 1918 - with references to the war woven intricately in to the piece through a series of musical motifs.

It opened with brass and woodwind, plaintive and a little mournful, before progressing – with sense of trembling foreboding – to a pair of pulsing crescendos, the second crested by glistening brass and followed by a chaotic passage of competing orchestral sections.

An eerie harp interlude hinted at calm between moments of intense action, while a sinuous oboe melody wound towards a rapid but faint military drum...and then silence.

The second half of the evening saw a brace of pieces by Ravel, including his Enigma Variations-like Le tombeau de Couperin whose six vivid and colourful movements each pay tribute to a friend who fell during the war.

Two of the six were orchestrated for the Phil by its Capital of Culture composer in residence, Kenneth Hesketh – a beefy Fugue, and a final Toccata which offered a brilliant cascade of melody; fast, furious and firey.

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