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Review: Petrenko's Mahler I at Philharmonic Hall *****

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was the first British orchestra to perform the Mahler cycle when Sir Charles Groves wielded the baton back in the 1960s.

Well that was then, and this is now – now being 10 years almost to the day since the RLPO last embarked on a mighty march through Mahler’s ground-breaking symphonic opus, led once again by chief conductor Vasily Petrenko.

Chief conductor but not for much longer, the 43-year-old Russian in his penultimate season with the Phil before he decamps to the Cadogan Hall and a new era starts at Hope Street.

But for now, the owner of the most delicately expressive free hand on the conducting circuit remains Liverpool's, and judging by this opening concert in the cycle, he’s planning to make it a memorable last hurrah.

For Petrenko, Mahler infused the traditional symphonic genre with existential questions as he set out to try and “describe the universe and the role of the individual in it”.

The universe Petrenko and the Phil created was saturated with intense colours and tremendous energy, from an opening movement delivered with masterly control and detail - and expressive shaping, to a thrillingly stormy fourth, fizzing with dark energy and offering a finale that was both lustrous and life-affirming.

In between, conductor and orchestra gave us a robust landler, played with rustic vigour – juxtaposed nicely with a lyrical central section, and a slow movement underpinned by the ominous round song Frere Jacques, dissolving in and sliding out of the gorgeous, aching wistfulness of Mahler's klezmer-like second subject.

Nuanced yet vivid, exuberant and uplifting. Who could ask for more?

Baritone Benjamin Appl. Photo by Lars Borges.

There was more however, in the form of the lofty Benjamin Appl, making a welcome return visit to Liverpool after impressing in Britten’s War Requiem at the cathedral in 2018.

He brought his lovely lyrical baritone to five short Schubert lieder, all arranged by other composers including the Phil’s own principal horn Tim Jackson.

Appl is a superlative storyteller, a talent particularly apparent here in Jackson’s arrangement of Schubert favourite Die Forelle (The Trout) which the young German delivered with effervescence and clarity, and in a delightfully dramatic The Erlking which showed off his warm, rounded tone, range and vocal agility.

It was all over far too soon. Still, the lucky can catch him again on Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile the evening opened with Anton Webern’s Im Sommerwind, a fresh and youthful tone poem (from a composer who in his later years embraced the atonal) but also, under Petrenko, one with beautifully controlled lyricism, and, in the closing bars, a radiance which melted into sweet musical turmoil in epic Gone With the Wind fashion.

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