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Review: RLPO presents Symphonie Fantastique ****1/2

And so, the new season has opened at the Philharmonic Hall, with a programme which, if not with whistles, certainly had plenty of bells attached.

The RLPO, under percussionist Graham Johns, has been steadily increasing its collection of church bells in recent times, and two new acquisitions – including one dedicated to chief conductor Vasily Petrenko - were given their first outing at the finale of an evening which fairly rang with musical drama.

A conductor embarking on his penultimate season, a new world premiere, the return of a Liverpool favourite (in the form of the completely charming, blind Japanese virtuoso Nobuyuki Tsujii) and the sounding of the ‘Forever Bells’? The only thing that was missing from the mix was the traditional season opening National Anthem.

Instead, Petrenko led the Phil straight into the opening bars of Dani Howard’s glistening new work Coalescence, a contemplation on climate change where man (in the form of sinister, punctuated brass interjections like First World War tanks rolling across the natural landscape) comes in to conflict with a more sinuous nature, evoked by gauzily bright strings and woodwind.

Above: Composer Dani Howard takes a bow. Top: Nobi Tsujii. Photos by Mark McNulty

Like Howard’s 2017 work Argentum, premiered by the Phil at the Royal Albert Hall, Coalescence has an effervescent opening, soft fluttering woodwind and burnished crescendos. But the new piece feels like it travels further, musically, than its pulsating and repetitive predecessor, making for a more satisfying listening experience.

It also featured a preview of the church bells to come, albeit on a more intimate scale.

Pianist Nobu is also nothing if not effervescent, both in personality and at the keyboard, and his performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 was both richly romantic but also delightfully sinuous and sensitive, particularly through the second movement’s gentle duet with Matthew Glendening’s clarinet.

Under Petrenko’s baton, the Phil buoyed the piano line with a lusciously creamy and full-bodied orchestral accompaniment, keeping up a heart-pumping tension through the first movement and producing an emotionally stirring tone in the third.

Percussionist Graham Johns with two of the 'Forever Bells' premiered during the performance

The programme was completed with Berlioz’s semi-autobiographical and hugely ambitious Symphonie Fantastique, a musical journey through a drug-induced dreamy subconsciousness complete with introspective reverie, a whirligig waltz featuring two harps, a long contemplative adagio punctuated by bristling timpani, and Spinal Tap waves of blistering sound through a heavily-medicated ‘march to the scaffold’.

It all came to a crescendo with an infernal Witches’ Sabbath, complete with creepy skeletal col legno strings, a troubling dies irae sounding through the bassoons, and – from off stage – the chimes of those giant C and G bells, all wrapped up in a frantic and fortissimo finale.

A stirring start to the season to come.

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