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Review: RLPO Season Opening Concert at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

The nights are drawing in and there’s an early autumnal chill in the air which can mean only one thing – a new season of music making at the Philharmonic Hall.

And the start of a second season (already) for maestro Domingo Hindoyan, in ebullient form at the front of a Phil augmented for this opening concert by a sturdy wall – a baker’s dozen ‘banda’ – of additional brass.

It was a fitting tribute to the orchestra’s much admired principal trumpet Rhys Owens who died earlier this year and to whom this opening concert was dedicated.

But before the fanfare of Janacek’s brass-infused Sinfonietta there was also a silent tribute to the Queen, who approved the addition of ‘Royal’ to the Liverpool Philharmonic when she became the orchestra’s patron all the way back in 1958; a silence followed by the still strange newness of God Save the King.

Who will be patron now?

There may be change afoot at the top, but it was business as usual in the freshly illuminated Hope Street hall where a near-capacity audience was treated to an invigorating opening to the 2022/23 programme.

Janacek’s Sinfonietta was premiered in Prague in June 1926, two months after the future Elizabeth II was born at her grandparents’ home in London.

The piece, whose name belays its unique compact symphonic force, is packed with personality and complex, intriguing and unexpected variations on its main fanfare theme. It was, apparently, composed for a gymnastics festival and it has an energy and vitality which you can imagine knocked its first audience’s socks off.

The brass banda (including nine trumpets) and Phil’s percussion section opened the piece in punchy fashion, returning 20 minutes later in a glorious finale of fanfares and pealing chimes.

In between, the three central sandwiched sections, named after places in Janacek’s beloved Brno, were vividly realised through moments of bucolic woodwind, a burst of radiance from harpist Elizabeth McNulty, an expressive lament on strings above a sustained tuba, stern trombone and Spanish-sounding dance passages which together created an invigorating launch to the new season.

Above: Kateřina Kněžíková with the RLPO. Top: Conductor Domingo Hindoyan and the orchestra. Photos from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Back in 2010 when the orchestra was in the middle of its mammoth Mahler cycle, it played the Fourth Symphony on tour in Northern Spain and reprised it at the Phil as part of the autumn programme.

I wrote then that the adagio alone was worth an evening of anyone’s time, and that remains the case – here Hindoyan bringing an oh-so-delicate touch to the movement which was an elegiac delight, carefully and beautifully crafted from the cello’s opening theme over plucked basses through a sudden burst of tempo (followed by a sweet, plaintive violin line from Thelma Handy), to a crescendo wave breaking into a big, glistening E major chord and dying away into serene softness. Lovely.

Elsewhere there was a nimble opening movement, complete with sleigh bells, juicy tunes and an expansive full orchestral sound, a crisp, cock-eyed scherzo with Handy on sharp-tuned violin, and a final movement – Das Himmlische Leben – heralded by sinuous clarinet and sweet woodwind and introducing Kateřina Kněžíková’s warm and creamy lyrical soprano.

Once or twice early on the Phil threatened to overpower her, particularly in her lower register, but her rich and powerful top notes rose resplendently above the accompaniment to the far reaches of the upper gallery. And possibly into the night sky beyond.


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