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Review: Enchanting Tales at Philharmonic Hall ****

The harpsichord and its kissing cousins the virginal and spinet have become synonymous with the sound of the 17th and early 18th century – the Renaissance and the Baroque.

But the instrument also has an atmospheric Levantine quality to it which makes it an evocative voice full of Eastern promise – not least in this concerto, Ancient Letters, by Elena Kats-Chernin, where its singular tones paint a compelling and vivid musical picture of dusty landscapes and distant caravanserai.

And who better to perform Kats-Chernin’s work than Iranian-American harpsichord virtuoso, and RLPO Artist in Residence, Mahan Esfahani, whose vibrant playing added an additional layer of shimmering warmth and colour to the piece on a wet and cold April evening.

Esfahani also brings a real sense of vibrating energy to the keyboard, his head bobbing madly as he moves with the pulse of the music.

A useful indicator in the first movement, titled Tiger Cub, as despite this being a Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord, the instrument vanished at times below the sweeping sands of a gloriously burnished but somewhat overwhelming orchestral accompaniment, at least where I was sitting.

The second movement, Musk Trade, featured duetting harpsichord and harp and a lovely limpid dance with winding oboe melody that promised Menotti-style kings bearing gifts from far off lands, while the final section – Goodbye Samarkand (a nod to the Silk Road heritage of its composer) – brought together quirky percussive outbursts and circling orchestra over a rippling, whip-quick harpsichord.

Esfahani is in the middle of his RLPO residency, but this concert (being recorded for broadcast on Radio 3 this Sunday) marked a Liverpool debut for the impossibly youthful Estonian pianist-turned-conductor Mihhail Gerts, who stepped in at the last minute for the poorly Elim Chan.

Philharmonic Hall. Photo Mark McNulty. Top: Mahan Esfahani. Photo Bernhard Musil.

Gerts, who apparently speaks seven languages fluently, led the Phil with a firm but delicate touch, the delicacy much in evidence in Ravel’s sinuously-crafted Mother Goose Suite.

Meanwhile the concerto of the first half was paired with a rather unusual slice of Stravinsky – the composer bookending this Thursday night concert programme in distinctly different fashion.

The Russian crafted his 1920 Pulcinella Suite from fragments of 18th century melodies, its smoothly melodic, baroque feel encompassing a range of styles and orchestral textures along with a little of his own musical personality.

Gerts offered deft and nuanced guidance from the box, and there were some enjoyable solo punctuations throughout the piece including Rebekah Abramski’s sprightly running bassoon line, and a punchy passage for Simon Cowen on trombone.

And the evening came to a punchy finish too with Stravinsky’s jagged and urgent wartime Symphony in Three Movements, complete with full phalanx of brass, busy bassoon work, and spiky syncopated piano courtesy of Ian Buckle who swapped the keyboard graveyard of stage right (where a harpsichord and celeste lay abandoned) for a perch in the heart of the Phil’s brass and basses engine room.

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