Macedonian Pianist Provides High Voltage Saint-Saëns

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, SaintSaëns, Berlioz: Simon Trpčeski (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra ,Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Guildhall, Preston 26.3.2012. (MC)

Debussy: Rondes de Printemps from Images
SaintSaëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

It’s clear that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has come a long way under their Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) born chief conductor Vasily Petrenko. Now revitalised it’s a joy to attend concerts from this very fine orchestra. It will certainly be cause for celebration if Petrenko chooses to stay in Liverpool beyond 2015.

As I expected the Liverpool Phil/Petrenko partnership did not disappoint with this French themed concert at Preston Guildhall. With his usual elegant bearing the inspirational Russian maestro directed with focus and assurance. In Debussy’s Rondes de Printemps Petrenko ensured that the Guildhall was suffused with the delicate aroma, verdant colours and excitable sounds of the season of spring. The final section of Debussy’s three Images for orchestra, Rondes de Printemps, seemed ideal to ease and soothe the body from the strains of the day. Beautifully played this incandescent, cleanly focused performance exuded bucolic charm. The beautifully toned and polished playing from the woodwind, especially the flutes and oboe, will linger in the memory.

It must be nearly thirty years since I attended a Manchester concert with French pianist Cécile Ousset giving an electric account of Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2. Since then I have always found this score highly attractive but performances have often disappointed. Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski, a regular collaborator with Petrenko, was on fine form entertaining the audience with a high-voltage performance and a touch of swagger too. Trpčeski was authoritative right from the opening cadenza of the weighty first movement, and the entrance of the orchestra was striking. In total command Trpčeski told a passionate story with such expressive playing. Lyrical and good humoured the inventive central Scherzo sounded marvellous and was marred only by a couple of untidy moments of indecision between soloist and orchestra. Vivaciously up-beat the carnival-like finale with its tarantella rhythms was a splendid showpiece for the Macedonian’s brilliant if rather showy technique. How the audience loved Trpčeski’s performance and they were treated to an encore for piano, violin and cello called Dancing Fantasy (I think!). Jaunty and unsophisticated this arrangement of an accordion piece included shouting and stamping which only added to the fun.

Petrenko’s account of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a daringly innovative score when composed, felt fresh and so freely and brazenly romantic. This was an alert reading from Petrenko with the challenging instrumental balances splendidly controlled – a gratifying mixture of dramatic tension and refinement. With such marvellous string playing I was frequently reminded how splendid the cello section has become having developed a rich, mellow, almost Russian hue to their sound. Cor anglais principal Rachael Pankhurst demonstrated a remarkable technique and limpid tone. I loved her haunting solo playing over timpani rolls in the plaintive Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country).

In the famous Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) Petrenko kept a steady pace resisting any temptation to overquicken. Skilfully the percussion and brass didn’t over-dominate the proceedings, playing powerfully yet at sensible volumes. The intensely played finale, Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat (Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath) was a different matter with the battery of percussion playing with real purpose and the colourful braying brass packing a real punch. Petrenko clearly has a special affinity for the Berlioz score. How I wish the performance had been recorded.

Michael Cookson