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Review: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto at Philharmonic Hall ****

On January 27, 1914, composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov made his second visit to the old Philharmonic Hall.

Three years previously, he had played his Third Piano Concerto in a concert he also conducted.

But on this January evening, he took a step back in time to his wildly romantic Piano Concerto No 2, the highlight of a somewhat mixed bag of a programme, delivered in a performance which one reviewer described as “a wonder and a delight” to the Liverpool crowd.

The concerto has remained wildly romantic and wildly popular with audiences since it was first premiered at the turn of the 20th Century – as evidenced by this practically full house at Hope Street, the hall humming with a pre-Covid air of expectation.

‘Rach 2’, it appears, also profoundly affected a young Sergei Babayan and set him upon a musical road – a road which has, half a century on, brought him to Liverpool for two performances of the piece under Domingo Hindoyan’s baton.

There was an early bump in the road in this Thursday night performance however, with soloist and orchestra seemingly at odds at the start of the moderato’s stormy opening passage – an unexpected dislocation which, happily, was skilfully rectified by some nimble work from Hindoyan and the band.

Babayan, launching into the work’s opening chords and rolling, rippling theme at rapid speed and with all guns blazing, has a particularly powerful left hand - basso profundo one might say – creating a thundering blitzkrieg around which the Phil swirled.

The two finally arrived in harmony amid the respite of the movement’s slow, sweet, lyrical second theme, introduced by the orchestra, before the return of what were emotionally intense, overwhelming crashing waves of sound.

Babayan swapped throaty intensity for delicacy in the work’s famous adagio, his singing piano lifted softly from an orchestral sunrise which featured lovely flute and clarinet moments, while the second violins provided descending sweetness, and there was a gorgeous recapitulation of the original theme with a lovely vocal line from the strings.

Above: Pianist Sergei Babayan. Top: Conductor Domingo Hindoyan

The allegro, feistily crisp and with its haunting almost arabesque melody weaving through the orchestra, powered towards its triumphant finale with Babayan once again the passionate and thundering dynamo in its midst.

If power and passion was one shared thread for the evening, another was a key – with all three pieces being in C minor, the key of tenderness, longing and perhaps even a touch of the supernatural.

Mendelssohn chose it for his Overture to Ruy Blas (Victor Hugo’s tragic and violent drama), here given a pungent and pacy performance by the Phil to open the programme, with a solemn horn fanfare, lively string passages and an enjoyably big finish.

And Brahms, labouring in the long shadow cast by his beloved Beethoven, also plumped for C minor when he came to compose his First Symphony.

The work, arriving after the interval, was alive with colour under Hindoyan’s animated and expressive direction, the developing variations and conflicting musical ideas of its opening allegro movement delivered with power and panache, and some lovely individual moments in the second including Rainer Gibbons’ gentle oboe melody and the sweetness of (returning) leader Amarins Wierdsma’s violin.

The finale, announced with an ominous descending sequence on strings – like a high-stakes game of grandmother’s footsteps - was beautifully measured, as was the introduction of the movement’s alphorn theme and brass chorale.

Hindoyan, a riot of stares, smiles and sweeping gestures, urged the orchestra through Brahms’ musical homage to Beethoven and on to a satisfyingly radiant and thundering finish.


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