Review: National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at Philharmonic Hall ****
During the early months of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, video footage of impromptu music-making would pop up regularly on social media.
There was music-making in the streets of towns and cities from Lviv to Lyman, and also in stolen moments on the front line where Ukrainian soldiers would pick up instruments and play (and sing).
These were dignified - and courageous - acts of defiance in the face of brutality and destruction.
And music (and culture more generally) has continued to be a powerful, passionate voice for the country on both the national and international stage.
Hence this current 17-date tour of the UK by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under its long-serving artistic director Volodymyr Sirenko, which reached Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on a night of torrential rain and the rapid rattle of distant November fireworks.
When the orchestra’s managing director Oleksandr Hornostai announced the tour last autumn he explained “we took the decision early on that we had an important role to play in continuing to perform, in order to protect and showcase Ukrainian musical culture and show there is more to our country than just the conflict.”
Still, conflict was never far from the surface in a programme which bookended the evening with two works speaking eloquently – and resonantly - of battles for a beloved homeland.
Borys Lyatoshynsky, the father of 20th Century Ukrainian music, composed his symphonic ballad Grazhyna with a subtle subtext. While officially it was based on a poem by the in-favour Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, telling the story of a mythical heroine in Lithuania’s battle for independence, in reality it spoke of the struggle to escape the Soviet yoke.
The orchestra, condensed on the lower reaches of the Philharmonic’s stage, creates a distinct and weighty sound, and here it delivered a deep, dark and dramatic andante with plenty of punch, a punch punctuated in the allegro by bright brass fanfares and some gutsy string playing as the musical battle reached its climax.
Amid the tumult, Grazhyna’s theme was picked out with sinuous delicacy on cor anglais.
And the concert concluded with Liszt’s evocative symphonic poem Mazeppa, telling the story of a Ukrainian hero fighting an oppressive foreign power and a potent, powerful musical message to Moscow.
Full of intent, with rapid strings and forceful brass footsteps, under Sirenko (no baton, but occasional shaking fists) the Ukrainian orchestra painted a relentless, epic picture of a struggle to the end – complete with a glistening, triumphant finale.
Between the two, the orchestra was joined on the Hope Street stage by Odesa-born virtuoso Aleksey Semenenko for a heartfelt performance of Bruch’s popular First Violin Concerto, Semenenko technically nimble while imbuing the piece with palpable sense of emotion.
Sirenko kept the forces of orchestra and soloist sensitively balanced, particularly in the central adagio, where Semenenko wove a honeyed solo line before launching into a joyously vibrant finale.
There was also an enjoyable, lively romp through Strauss’s chutzpah-filled tone poem Don Juan, complete with sweet solo violin from concertmaster Maksym Grinchenko and refreshing oboe and clarinet interjections amid the blistering passion.
Great music is a common language that crosses centuries and continents.
And this was an evening of full-hearted music-making by an orchestra advocating loudly and clearly (and melodically) on behalf of its homeland.