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Review: Explorations at Philharmonic Hall ****

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has a reputation for commissioning new work and Hope Street audiences have become used to world premieres forming a regular part of the seasonal programme.

From Karl Jenkins and John Tavener to Nico Muhly and Roberto Sierra (via Liverpool-born and North West based composers), the Philharmonic Hall has reverberated to new and interesting sounds – although I suspect this might be the first work, certainly in recent years, to put harpsichord centre stage.

Mahan Esfahani pitched the initial idea for a new piece to composer Gavin Bryars over a pint in a pub before it was taken up by the RLPO and co-commissioners the Orchestre National de Lyon.

Esfahani brought his own bespoke instrument with him when he was an artist in residence at Hope Street four years ago, and returned with it for this week's world premiere too.

A many slendered thing, it’s slim and sleek traditional lines hide some very 21st Century innovations that Esfahani’s musical hero Bach would surely marvel at – its soundboard (and other more secret design components) a carbon fibre composite, and its double manual keyboard transformed with the flick of a discreet switch to afford both an extra octave above (left switch) or below (right switch), creating a larger and louder range of registers.

Perfect then to parry with the volume generated by even a semi-full symphony orchestra, and, also, to add extra vocal notes to Bryars’ sonorous concerto, which opened with a low, shimmering, almost ominous orchestral continuo that evoked a sense of deep space.

Close your eyes for an out-of-body experience involving the perpetual cinematic orbiting a planet against the backdrop of its otherworldly soundscape (or, alternatively perhaps, dropping in on a Beatles’ studio session during the height of their experimental phase).

If it never took you right to the ‘final frontier’, it did offer an aural journey of its own, building waves of restlessness/discordant tension which then resolved into more malleable and melodic passages.

Above: Mahan Esfahani premiered Gavin Bryars' Harpsichord Concerto with the RLPO at Philharmonic Hall

In a brief performance note, Bryars (sitting incognito at the back of the stalls, although he emerged to take a smiling bow at the end) explained how he had ‘deliberately limited the amount of ornamentation’ in the score, instead creating more of an outline for Esfahani to colour in as he pleased.

In the event, harpsichord’s most passionate and energetic champion resisted the temptation to over-embellish, maintaining an almost austere voice, while the frills and furbelows came courtesy of Elizabeth McNulty’s harp and layers of elegiac melody wound through the winds and up from the basses.

The new concerto was bookended with a pair of symphonies.

Mozart’s Paris Symphony, a cheerful and confident D major crowd-pleaser delivered during the Austrian’s stay in the French capital, was here given a vivid outing by Andrew Manze and the orchestra, its ebullient outer movements embracing an andantino whose elegant lines were handled with delightful deftness.

The vivid musical colours continued after the interval in a pleasingly invigorating performance of Sibelius’ First Symphony, Victor de la Rosa’s extended, haunting solo clarinet line heralding an opening movement full of glorious, glistening playing, followed by a transporting andante as clean and clear as Finland’s bracing elements.

There was also plenty of clarity in an on-the-button scherzo, and in the achingly romantic, Tchaikovsky-influenced finale.

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