Review: Schumann Symphony at Philharmonic Hall ****


What a difference a day – well, three days – makes.

Bulgarian superstar soprano Sonya Yoncheva was forced to pull out of her Liverpool debut on Thursday night due to illness, with Jennifer Johnston stepping in as a last-minute replacement.

But she made a heroic recovery to be back on vocal form for this Sunday afternoon concert conducted by husband Domingo Hindoyan.

Gliding on to the stage in flowing Grecian-style jumpsuit and with her every move recorded by a trio of cameras (keep your eyes peeled – there’s a TV documentary afoot), Yoncheva delivered an intense, emotion-laden performance of Giuseppe Martucci’s rarely heard La Canzone dei Ricordi, or the Song of Remembrance.

Martucci was the 19th Century Italian outlier who eschewed opera to write instrumental music and German-style lieder.

The seven unfolding sections of this song cycle encompass memories of and musings on love, loss, happiness and heartache, and Yoncheva gave rich and expressive voice to each in turn, with the Liverpool Phil offering nuanced and sensitive support.

An evocative allegretto con moto second section brought with it dappled woodwind and sunlit strings, Yoncheva’s voice rising gracefully above harp and flutes.

The drama continued through the vocal line in the andantino third section, introduced with wistful oboe, while the fifth song, an andante telling of longing and lost love, was beautifully measured from joy to soaring despair.

In a nifty bit of complementary programming, the Canzone was bookended with a burst of Martucci’s contemporary Verdi and by troubled German Romantic Robert Schumann.

As Hindoyan pointed out in his introduction at the start of the concert, the little-performed opera Luisa Miller comes from a transitional period of Verdi’s career, arriving just ahead of his triumvirate of big hits Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and people’s favourite La Traviata.

Its overture is everything you expect from the genre – big, bold, dramatic flourishes juxtaposed with a bubbling second theme - introduced via a pretty clarinet solo - and a punchy finale, all with Hindoyan grinning in buoyant enjoyment at the front.

Schumann’s Second Symphony in bright C major was composed when he was already exhibiting the mental instability which would overtake him in his final decade.

It has a conflicting opening movement encapsulated in its description as sostenuto/allegro, ma non troppo – the first part announced through a brass chorale and built through the strings before the arrival of the allegro, staccato conducting from Hindoyan answered with an energetic pulsing, nicely carried through the orchestra’s sections.

The crisp scherzo with its roots in the baroque also came with punchy crescendo and power through the strings’ viola/cello engine room, and the elegiac adagio (with its hint of Bach, or perhaps the lachrymose from Mozart’s Requiem) included a winding, sweet oboe line.

It’s allegro finale, developing themes from the adagio before bursting into a new melody, was brisk and dynamic.