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Review: Giltburg Plays Beethoven at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

A great big Beethoven anniversary is looming on the horizon with next year marking the 250 years since Ludwig van’s birth.

The world is about to go eroically crazy, and the RLPO’s own 2019/20 season – announced in a fanfare of fizz and cupcakes at the Philharmonic Hall this week, is bursting with Beethoven symphonies, sonatas and his Missa Solemnis.

Russian-born, Israel-raised Boris Giltburg started the party early however with a beautifully airy and fresh performance of the German Romantic’s First Piano Concerto, written in sunny C major and with a sparkling nod to the recently-departed, mercurial Mozart.

Curled over the keys, the 34-year-old virtuoso certainly put the ‘con brio’ in to the opening allegro, albeit with a delicate lightness and fluidity in a performance that was visually understated but full-blown in tone and texture.

A warm and elegantly delivered largo was complimented by beautifully balanced orchestral accompaniment which never threatened to overwhelm the piano, while there was a leap straight in to a jolly, capering rondo finale which showcased Giltburg’s enviable dexterity and seemingly effortless precision – an effortlessness born of many, many hours at the keyboard of course.

If youthful Beethoven is a light delight – a crisp, musical Muscadet if you like – Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (a Hero’s Life) is a great big, bold, boisterous, inky red.

It certainly was under Petrenko’s direction, and with the Hope Street stage groaning under the weight of augmented brass (nine horns, six trumpets and a euphonium among them), basses and cellos, plus a good sprinkling of peppery percussion.

The titular hero announced himself like Superman soaring over the Liverpool skyline, cape billowing, in fabulous fortissimo fashion, expansive strings punctuated by the sharp chatter of woodwind and muted mumblings of brass.

There’s a second character in Strauss’s semi-autobiographical piece, the hero’s plucky companion, here given sweet and plaintive voice in extended solo passages by leader Thelma Handy.

Richly romantic and at time furiously entertaining, this was a performance that made me laugh out loud – partly at the sheer chutzpah of it all and partly at a fellow concertgoer who was practically head-banging in his seat, so swept up was he by the musical maelstrom.

It wasn’t all teeth-rattling tumult however, with harp and woodwind, and a crystal clear off-stage trumpet trio, offering a brief respite from the torrent – and the final word given, via solo violin, to woodwind which faded to infinity.

The programme opened with a soupçon of Schubert’s Rosamunde ballet music – one dance pleasant but unmemorable, and the second a catchy melody that insinuated itself in to the brain through a series of cavorting crescendos.

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