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Review: Symphonie Fantastique at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

The numbers of Covid-related no shows on concert programmes have, thankfully, reduced to barely a trickle in recent months.

Still, this Saturday night at Hope Street was announced with a change of conductor some time ago, with Singapore’s Kahchun Wong being indisposed due to ‘travel restrictions’.

On the plus side, stepping into his shoes has given the Phil’s new chief conductor Domingo Hindoyan the chance to spend an extended period at the hall, bonding with the orchestra (and audience) through several concerts including last weekend’s Youth Orchestra performance where he even played violin.

Hindoyan was purely on conducting duties last night, although a snatch of footage online reveals he did also manage to get his hands on the Phil’s Forever Bells in rehearsal (reportedly under strict supervision from principal percussion Graham Johns who allowed him three very careful ‘dongs’).

Happily, despite losing a conductor there were no travel issues for Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina and her 320-year-old Stradivarius, arriving in Liverpool for a sprightly and vibrant performance of Shostakovich’s demanding Cello Concerto No1.

Impish in flowing white, Kobekina brought an angular energy to the opening allegretto, its persistent, pulsing signature DSCH motif bouncing backwards and forwards between soloist and orchestra and the restless movement’s second theme echoing through the woodwind which had an altogether stellar evening.

There was a moment of beautifully plaintive horn from Tim Jackson (a repeated foil to the cello) at the start of the moderato, and a nicely controlled crescendo through the strings as Kobekina spun her sweet but sorrowful solo line, giving way to a baritone richness in the full-scale cadenza which showcased the young cellist’s impressive technique and dexterity.

Top: Domingo Hindoyan. Photo by Mark McNulty

The finale brought with it a return of the rhythmic intensity of the opening movement, Hindoyan increasing the tension through an off kilter, limping dance and Kobekina’s cello cavorting towards the finish in enjoyably boisterous fashion.

While the smiling young Russian resisted the audience’s demand for an encore, I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see her on stage here.

Shostakovich - and a limb-loosening snatch of Wagner - was paired with Berlioz’s orchestral epic Symphonie Fantastique, composed in a mist of obsessive youthful (unrequited) grand passion and, reputedly, under the influence of a lot of opium.

Saying that, it’s by no means all tortured and thunderous; there are moments of dreamy meditation and tenderness along the way to its dramatic and destructive fourth and fifth (final) movements.

Given it’s the best part of 200-year-old it’s also technically and texturally innovative which offers modern orchestras a chance to flex their musical muscles and versatility.

Here the opening movement, with its introduction of the composer’s ‘idea fixe’, was delivered with a bright, full-bodied orchestral sound, clean crescendos and crisp dynamic changes, while the famous second (Un Bal) boasted plenty of energy through the lovely rise and fall of its central waltz theme.

A shepherd’s call on oboe, echoed by a second from off stage, opened the third movement which gave the Phil’s woodwind section a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.

Hindoyan brought proceedings to a close in triumphant fashion and satisfying depth of sound, the fourth movement - announced by timpani and augmented brass - featuring a grandmother’s footsteps through a quartet of bassoons.

The eagle eyed will have spotted Graham Johns tip-toeing off stage to chime those Liver Bird-decorated bells in the demonic ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale with its long, involved A Day in the Life-style crescendo and a suitably dramatic finish.


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