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Review: Petrenko Conducts Mahler at Philharmonic Hall *****

They may not have killed a fatted calf, but there was a (sustained and deserved) standing ovation and even flowers to welcome the return of Liverpool Phil’s favourite son to the Hope Street fold.

Of course, Vasily Petrenko was denied a proper send off last summer because of pandemic restrictions, but the newly designated Conductor Laureate certainly received a proper ‘welcome back’ from the Philharmonic Hall crowd in the first of two concerts this week.

A return to Liverpool, a return to Mahler – and together Petrenko and the Phil have proved themselves peerless interpreters of the Austrian composer’s symphonic cycle.

The Fifth Symphony announced the arrival of Mahler’s ‘middle' period, and (together with the Resurrection symphony) arguably marks perhaps his finest hour. Or hour and 10 minutes to be precise.

Still, you wait for one Fifth Symphony to come along and two arrive on the same programme, Schubert’s diametrically different fifth a late replacement due to the imposition of featured soloist Truls Mørk who had been due to perform the UK premiere of Victoria Borisova-Ollas’s cello concerto.

The teenage Franz was in the middle of a grand passion with the music of ‘immortal Mozart’ when he composed the compact symphony during a purple patch in 1816, although his own maturing musical personality also peeps through in its four movements.

It was a souffle of a starter ahead of a meaty Mahler main course, Petrenko’s frondy conducting encouraged a lovely lightness of touch from the orchestra. The andante second movement was delivered with elegance, while the opening of the menuetto had purpose and attack, and the symphony’s crisp and bubbly allegro vivace finale was Will-o’-the-wisp light on its feet.

And so to Gustav.

Above: A standing ovation for Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO. Photo by Sandra Parr. Top: Vasily Petrenko. Photo by Mark McNulty

Herbert Von Karajan once said that a great performance of the Fifth – Mahler’s intense and dramatic musical journey from mourning to exultation - “is a transforming experience”, and this was indeed a great performance.

If Schubert paid homage to Mozart in his work, Mahler nodded in the direction of Beethoven in his, the opening trumpet solo of the trauermarsch first movement ringing out with hints of the German’s own Fifth Symphony.

Under Petrenko’s deft baton the orchestra brought clear dramatic intention, balance, tautness, a fierce energy and an elegiac depth of feeling and tone to the symphony’s five movements.

The A minor second movement brought with it a marvellous, swirling maelstrom and febrile woodwind from which the melody emerged, singing, through the cellos and clarinets. The drama then built from the cellos and broke, in cascading waves topped by a radiant brass fanfare which had an epic cinematic quality.

The scherzo’s folksy landler and stylish waltz themes came with a lovely rise and fall, pivoting the symphony into its most famous movement – possibly Mahler’s most famous piece of music – the adagietto (said to be a love song for his new wife Alma), which was deeply felt and delicately constructed and controlled.

Add in a magnificent final rondo, radiant with a capital R, and it’s no wonder the audience leapt straight to their feet in roof-raising appreciation.

There’s another chance to hear the mighty Mahler 5 this Sunday – this time paired with a world premiere of Grace-Evangeline Mason’s Mahler’s Letters.

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