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Review: Wild Swans at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

You wait for one world premiere to come along and then, like buses, two turn up one after the other.

And if Roberto Sierra’s Sixth Symphony (last week) and Anders Hillborg’s Viola Concerto (last night) were buses, they would be super-charged, souped-up engine charras.

Hillborg – who was at the Phil in person for the premiere – and ebullient soloist Lawrence Power were out to showcase just what the unsung member of the string section can do, in an 18-minute musical blitzkrieg with lashings of chutzpah…and more than a passing nod to the Fab Four.

It’s all part of Power’s and the Viola Commissioning Circle’s wider campaign to create an expanded body of work for the instrument. Other recent new pieces have come from Thomas Adès and Kurt Schwertsik.

Hillborg’s arcing musical narrative started and ended with ‘rage’, a relentless, driving flight of the bumblebee-style viola solo, echoed through the orchestra’s viola and violin sections, and layered over a fantastic, syncopated slapping of cellos and bases – a complex percussive counterpoint – with Rob Buckland’s soprano sax adding a forceful snake charmer refrain.

The frenzy slowly subsided through the concerto’s second and third movements, ‘fade’ and ‘still’, with the woodwind cleverly echoing its own notes and Power simultaneously bowing and plucking his viola to create an other-worldly drone over which he layered a mournful Levantine theme.

Latin scholars would have grasped the significance of the fifth movement’s title ‘odobenus lachrymae’, but for those of us dunces who never got far beyond parva puella it took its opening phrase for us to realise it was Hillborg’s cheeky nod to Liverpool’s greatest musical sons. I Am the Walrus indeed!

Anders Hillborg, Lawrence Power and the RLPO take the applause from the Hope Street audience

Could the repeated, rising, scurrying strings of the ‘ascension’ be a nod in the direction of the 24-bar orchestral section of A Day in the Life? It’s not an overly fanciful notion.

It ascended to the final movement, a return to rage, and a wonderfully ‘frenergetic’ finale.

The other headliner of the night was Sibelius’s mighty Fifth Symphony with the magnificent descending swan-call motif of its final movement delivered in majestic fashion by the horns (and later taken up by the trumpets) with the power of the full orchestra beneath.

A beaming Andrew Manze, on conducting duties, caressed and urged the Phil through the symphony, building each phrase with delicate care and pushing the orchestra for more through the tempo’s immense crescendo which burst forth into a glorious brass melody.

There’s nothing quite like a symphony orchestra at full glorious tilt.

The andante second movement brought a lovely lyricism and some deft pizzicato passages, ahead of the driving, energetic finale where Manze – still beaming - seized Sibelius’s famous ending, with its theatrical six sharp final chords, and delivered it with maximum dramatic punch.

The programme also included Strauss’s Don Juan, delivered as if Errol Flynn were buckling some swash in the stalls – full of drama, vivid colour and musical panache, and a jolly and melodic Serenade for Strings which, while written by 20th Century Swedish composer Dag Wiren, had a subtle hint of Coates or Walton about it.


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