Review: Sixteen Swans at Philharmonic Hall *****
Just another Thursday night in Liverpool UNESCO City of Music.
While down on the Pier Head a heaving festival crowd enjoyed a set from Liverpool electrician-turned-folk rock star Jamie Webster, up the hill in Hope Street an appreciative Philharmonic audience was treated to a blistering evening of majestic melodies and a huge central performance from pianist Inon Barnatan.
Barnatan made his debut appearance with the Phil 18 months ago when he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24.
But if that was a gentle exploration of the hall’s Steinway, this return with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 was a barnstorming, take-no-prisoners assault – in a thrilling double act with the orchestra under the expert baton of American conductor Roderick Cox, making his first but hopefully not last visit to Liverpool.
It may not have met with universal acclaim when Tchaikovsky first composed it, but the Russian’s concerto has become something of a crowd-pleasing staple of concert programmes the world over, while a 1958 recording became the first piece of classical music to sell a million albums.
So all credit to Barnatan and the Phil for bringing an exuberant feeling of freshness to an old favourite, from its famous four-note descending horn line opening and a rollicking first theme - based on a Ukrainian folk song - to the third movement’s exhilarating finale, via an andantino whose delicate main theme was passed from section to section with tender care while the piano rippled sensitively and subtly in support.
A collegiate Barnatan was visibly as well as musically invested in the opening allegro’s conversation between orchestra and piano and showcased impressive dexterity and some brilliant virtuosity in the concerto’s cadenzas (let’s gloss over what appeared to be a glancing clip of key near the start of the piece).
The programme of big tunes opened with Richard’s Strauss’s technically demanding tone poem Don Juan, an irresistible musical romp yes but deftly controlled by Cox – with a sizzling start, luscious and limpid romantic second theme (with mellow oboe line from Helena Mackie), a satisfyingly cinematic climax and, brakes fully applied, a final wistful contemplation of the amorous hero’s fate.
If Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto has one of the most famous horn openings in classical music, Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony has surely its most famous horn finale.
Cox, bouncing on the balls of his feet, certainly delivered on the magisterial grandeur as the ‘swan theme’ rang out through the symphony’s powerful final moments.
But he also encouraged an expansive sense of movement through the entire work, along with pin sharp punctuation and a lovely central andante with its woodwind chorale and subdued pizzicato progressing through the strings.