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Review: White Nights at Philharmonic Hall *****

Six years ago, Vasily Petrenko spent his 40th birthday conducting his annual White Nights concert at the Philharmonic Hall.

In fact, these birthday concerts have become something of a tradition. And while there may not have been quite such a big celebration on stage last night, there was still a cake, photos - instigated by the birthday boy himself, a brisk rendition of ‘happy birthday’ from the orchestra, and even flowers (sunflowers, incidentally the symbol of his late mother’s Ukrainian homeland).

There was also some terrific music making, not least from violinist Simone Lamsma, who had stepped in at short notice after soloist Sergei Dogadin had had to withdraw from the engagement.

I hope we will have the chance to hear Dogadin in Liverpool at some point. But in the event his replacement didn’t simply rise to the occasion, she soared.

Shostakovich’s violin concerto, delayed for years by its composer being ‘cancelled’ by Stalin, is darkly brooding and demonically lively in equal measure, with an extended cadenza to test its soloist.

Lamsma, who previously played Korngold’s violin concerto with the orchestra last November, proved herself more than a match for Shostakovich’s strenuous and symphonic creation.

Her violin sang plaintively and sorrowfully through the opening nocturne, with its burring deep notes a low rumble through violas, cellos and basses. There was a winding almost-duet with bassoon, while under Petrenko’s exacting eye, the Phil created a vivid and colourful supporting soundscape.

Lamsma also grasped and ran with the wild, rhythmic angularity of the concerto’s second movement, a thrilling danse macabre-like scherzo which felt at times like an exhilarating jamming session between soloist and orchestra.

Shostakovich introduced his famous DSCH musical motif into the passacaglia third movement whose solemn, rumbling bass-ostinato echoes the opening nocturne.

It was from this Lamsma’s violin rose in a thoughtfully paced and emotion-laden cadenza which led into the burlesque finale, a delightful confection of percussive capering and a lively violin theme which was echoed through the orchestra.

Above: Vasily Petrenko celebrates his birthday with an orchestra photo. Top: RLPO Conductor Laureate Vasily Petrenko. Photo by Mark McNulty.

The all-Russian programme opened with an amuse bouche (the emphasis on amuse) in the form of Liadov’s sparky Baba-Yaga, announcing itself with a leaping cry and a bassoon follow-the-leader, and with Petrenko acting the Fantasia-like conjuror at the front.

And it was completed after the interval with a delightfully iridescent performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Petrenko in swirling motion at the front as the orchestra wrought a powerful and luxurious sound.

Amid the vivid orchestral colour and moreish Oriental themes there were also some lovely moments from individual players including an achingly sweet interlude for orchestra leader Mihkel Kerem and harpist Elizabeth McNulty, and some excellent work from Katherine Lacy on clarinet.

Crisply delivered both in the fiery and fierce sections but also through the various 'tale’s’ piano passages, the orchestra delivered impressive percussive punctuation, a romantic violin melody, nimble woodwind and a maelstrom of a finale to send its audience home in happily buoyant mood.

If you missed it last night, they do it all again (birthday celebrations apart) on Sunday afternoon.


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