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

It’s never good news when you find yourself without a soloist days before a practically sold-out concert.

So you can feel for the Liverpool Phil team when it became apparent advertised pianist Anna Vinnitskaya was going to have to pull out of her planned appearance.

But as Maria told Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music: “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”

A window which cast its light on Sergio Tiempo, who happily had room in his diary and one of the most demanding of all piano concertos shiny and ready in his repertoire.

What started as an organisational headache thus morphed into an unexpected treat for a Thursday night audience at Hope Street as the Venezuelan-born Argentine virtuoso delivered a dazzling interpretation of Rachmaninov’s fiendish Third Piano Concerto.

The work, which has been described as “40 minutes of finger-twisting madness”, has the reputation of not being for the fainthearted. Its composer premiered it himself, but of course Rachmaninov wasn’t just a magnificent pianist but had a near-legendary handspan too.

Tiempo may not possess the latter, but he’s certainly a tremendous artist both technically and musically, here bringing an exhilarating dynamism, range and certainly his own colour and interpretation to the piece, his mass of dark curly locks bobbing energetically as he moved fleet-fingered across the keys.

Power, phrasing, pace…and perspiration (literally) combined in an effervescent performance which made the three-quarters-of-an-hour running time feel like 10 minutes. Tiempo fugit as it were.

Along the way there was a flamboyant cadenza – punctuated by the sweetness of Cormac Henry’s flute, an intermezzo which brought both romantic reflectiveness and spiky scherzando playing, and a frankly heroic finale all round.

But a concerto is a partnership. And while there was a perhaps fleeting moment at the start of the first movement where the Phil could have held back a touch to allow the piano to really sing, under Domingo Hindoyan’s nuanced direction Rachmaninov’s complex orchestral accompaniment was otherwise flawless, from the lovely swelling ebb and flow of the first movement themes to the expressive intermezzo (introduced by Jonathan Small’s beatific oboe) to the work's cinematic climax.

Despite the best efforts of the audience who roared their appreciation of his performance, Tiempo couldn’t be cajoled into an encore.

But hopefully he’ll be back in Liverpool in the not-too-distant future - let's see what else he has in his arsenal.

Rachmaninov was influenced by the world around him, the ‘rustling undernote' of trees and the tone of the sky after sunset.

Similarly, Brahms drew inspiration for his Second Symphony from nature, starting plans for the work while staying in a lakeside village on the edge of the Wörthersee, a stunning stretch of water in scenic Carinthia.

It must have been a balmy summer, because the ensuing work is a sunny delight (in sunny D major), and under Hindoyan’s expansive narrative arc the orchestra hinted of warmer days to come with a bucolic melody through horns and woodwind (and an expressive solo from principal horn Tim Jackson).

The adagio brought with it a lovely descending theme in the cellos, who also offered deft pizzicato accompaniment to charming and bright woodwind in the allegretto third movement, before a gorgeously vivid allegro finale - a striking chord in the trombones bringing the evening to a wholly satisfying close.


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