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Review: Grieg's Piano Concerto at Philharmonic Hall *****

It’s certainly a week for prodigal returns at Hope Street.

Tomorrow, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s greatest son – Sir Simon Rattle – takes to the Phil stage for the first time since 2008 to conduct in a youth orchestra reunion concert which is seeing ex-players jet in from as far as Australia.

And ahead of that, on Thursday night, an enthusiastic capacity audience was treated to an exhilarating evening’s entertainment courtesy of the original ‘Dream Team’ Vasily Petrenko and Simon Trpčeski.

The genial Macedonian piano virtuoso has been a regular visitor to Liverpool for two decades, but it was his rewarding partnership (and indeed friendship) with Petrenko during the latter’s 15-year tenure on the podium which really cemented his relationship with the city, its orchestra – and with concertgoers who have embraced him into the Phil ‘family’.

Certainly he seemed to feel, and reciprocate, the love on Thursday night with a mesmerising performance followed by not one but two encores delivered in heartfelt fashion before evidently reluctantly quitting the stage.

The Phil audience has been used to hearing Trpčeski play (brilliantly) Rachmaninov and Prokofiev with the RLPO, but here soloist and orchestra turned their backs of Russia in favour of Norway to combine in a sublime rendering of Grieg’s perennially popular Piano Concerto.

While Trpčeski (a former jury member of the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition) brought plenty of power and punch when required, elsewhere he offered a masterclass in luscious lyricism and delicacy, crafting an eloquent and harmonious musical conversation with both the orchestra - and with individual musicians; bassoon, flute, oboe and principal cello (Norwegian) Jonathan Aasgaard among them.

With Petrenko shaping Grieg’s creative orchestration, not least in a heartfelt, hymnal adagio – which also included some lovely work from principal horn Tim Jackson, and a storming, cinematic finale, it was a splendid reminder of the harmoniousness and potency of this 'dream' partnership. And I include the orchestra in that.

Above: Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO. Top: Petrenko and Simon Trpceski. Photo by Mark McNulty.

Earlier, the programme opened with Czech Bohuslav Martinů’s La Bagarre, dedicated to American aviator Charles Lindbergh’s ground-breaking 1927 transatlantic flight.

A flurry of rapid orchestration provided an animated sense of speed and momentum, painting a vivid picture of planes breaking through clouds and tracing acrobatic aerial lines in Waltonesque fashion.

Meanwhile The Firebird followed after the interval, and not for the first time. Twelve years ago a Dream Team concert programme paired Trpčeski’s performance (then of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2) with – just as here – the entirety of Stravinsky’s revolutionary 1910 ballet score.

Announced by an ominous growl through cellos and bass, with celeste and trio of harps adding to the air of disquiet and mystery in Koschei’s enchanted garden, under Petrenko’s exacting eye and guided by his expressive left hand, there was a deftly delivered pulsing crescendo/diminuendo heralding the entrance of the titular bird, and polished transitions between successive ethereal, crisp and playful passages - punctuated by pleasing vignettes from Cormac Henry and violist Nicholas Bootiman among others.

Not so much the piper at the gates of dawn, but certainly a trumpet silhouetted against an open door (calling to the story’s enchanted princesses) heralded the striking opening of Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance, delivered with blistering pace and dynamic, swirling fortissimo - and a quartet of glistening Wagner tubas which appeared stage left, before the arrival of honeyed bassoon and oboe, and horn winding above a shimmering, orchestral murmur.

All it needed was to deliver the work's radiant, pealing finale to conclude an evening of marvellous music-making. Dream team indeed.


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