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Review: Paul Lewis plays Beethoven with the RLPO *****

My but who could have imagined a Sunday afternoon of classical music could be quite such an emotional experience?

I realise I said something similar when we were finally let back into the Philharmonic Hall last autumn following the first lengthy Covid-driven absence.

And here we are, five months after the last live concerts, breathing the same air and sharing the same space and experience once more – albeit behind masks and still socially distanced.

From the woman in the ladies’ loos who was practically levitating with joy at being out of her house and in the Phil, to chief executive Michael Eakin’s heartfelt ‘welcome back’ before the start, to Vasily Petrenko peeling off his mask to tell us “we’re here to make your lives better, especially at difficult times” it was hard not to feel a lump in the throat.

And that’s not counting 80 minutes of marvellous music, combining – as Petrenko put it – “evergreen Beethoven and summer green Delius” and finishing with an unexpectedly jaunty Prokofiev Sinfonietta.

It’s more than a decade now since Paul Lewis played an entire cycle of Beethoven piano concertos in one Proms season.

Here in a welcome return to home turf (and nearly 40 years since he first attended Phil concerts as a schoolboy), he was content with just the one – Beethoven’s first concerto in C major, which he delivered with a combination of unshowy eloquence and enviable clarity.

Lewis brought a delicate lyricism to the buoyant allegro con brio, his playing feeling almost like a two-way conversation with the instrument, while there was sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra under Petrenko’s baton.

The largo came with a lovely limpid tone and masterful phrasing from the Huyton-raised pianist, as well as a chance for the clarinets to seize and shape the movement’s main melody, while the energising and deftly delivered rondo/allegro scherzando was a masterclass in brilliant articulation.

It’s become deeply unfashionable to express any kind of romantic feeling about the country we live in.

But Delius could surely drive even the most stony-hearted Anglophobe to a moment’s reverie with his Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, a musical evocation of Housman, Forster and that soon-to-vanish period captured in Larkin’s gut-wrenchingly poignant MCMXIV all wrapped up in a pair of filigree mini-tone poems.

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, with its folk melody, sunny strings and the faint ‘cuckoo’ on clarinet, was tantalisingly textured to evoke the resonant of the warm scents and abundant sounds of the countryside, while Summer Night on the River proved a more complex proposition, complete here with a central cello solo from Hilary Browning.

A teenage Prokofiev wrote his rarely performed Sinfonietta (for small orchestra) in 1909, but 20 years later, considering it a somewhat callow composition, revised it with the benefit of two turbulent decades of personal and musical experience behind him.

And the revised version certainly reflects that experience in its opening allegro giocoso, with a flavour of Roaring 20s, and the grandmother’s footsteps of an andante which pitches thudding Russian bear against jazz age New York trumpet.

The pizzicato strings and a spiralling descent of clarinets in the scherzo offered musical drama – drama added to by an unscheduled hiatus while one of the first violins had to replace a string, which then set up a satisfyingly blustery, whirling dervish finale.

A proper welcome back.

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