Uninspiring Mozart, Dazzling Ravel – Mixed Results from Paul Lewis and the Liverpool Phil

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt, Mozart, Saint-Saëns & Ravel: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor), Guild Hall, City of Preston, 15.1.2017 (MC)

Liszt Les Préludes
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 27
Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre
Ravel – Piano Trio, orchestrated Yan Pascal Tortelier

Yan Pascal Tortelier made quite an impression on me back in 1992 when conducting one of his first concerts after taking over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Then, the Parisian maestro conducted a mainly French programme of music which he adores and knows so well. At Preston Guild Hall for this Sunday afternoon concert with the Liverpool Phil it therefore came as no surprise that French music featured strongly on the programme.

There might be some people who still have a slight anxiety associated with hearing Liszt’s tone poem Les Préludes as the Nazis used the fanfare for its propaganda broadcasts on Reichsrundfunk (German Imperial Radio). Despite the thick and often unwieldy orchestration, this is a spectacular score often described as grand and sometimes vulgar and under Tortelier the players managed to capture much of the strength and glory of the work.

Next came Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, the final concerto which he wrote as he was to die within a year of completing the score. Typical of scores composed towards the end of a composer’s life, this wonderful work is often described as having an autumnal quality. Liverpudlian Paul Lewis was the soloist, who I have seen perform several times, and is certainly one of the finest pianists in the country. As I expected Lewis’s playing was precise and splendidly articulated with such cleanly focused timbre. Overdoing the autumnal character, in Lewis’s hands everything felt sombre and over serious rather in the manner of an elegy, stripping away any warmth from this beautiful music. I can’t disagree with the term “uninspiring” which I heard used in the hall. A bright spot was the crisp and vibrant playing of real character from the Liverpool Phil providing consistent quality.

After the interval the order of the two remaining works had been switched without notice and I could see puzzled looks as people consulted their programmes. First we heard Ravel’s Piano Trio in the orchestration prepared by Yan Pascal Tortelier, which worked splendidly with the conductor lavishing his care on tempi and dynamics. The four movement score sounded magnificent with Tortelier and his players relishing this dazzling and spectacularly colourful work. Full of polish and charm, I revelled in the dreamy atmosphere of the opening movement Modéré which at times strongly reminded me of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. Particularly engaging was a short episode for muted trumpets. In the Pantoum the orchestration felt especially vibrant although some of the percussive effects sounded rather trite. Notable was the stunning string writing in the Passacaille and the uplifting Finale contained a glorious oriental feel, becoming engagingly dramatic.

To close the concert we heard the orchestral showpiece Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. Portraying the French folk-tale on Halloween night this is a real audience favourite, which I don’t seem to hear in concert so much in recent decades. Tortelier and his Liverpool players were in their element, fashioning a fitting sense of the grotesque including skeletons rising from their graves for wild and ghoulish dancing.

I’m already looking forward to the next concert in the Liverpool Phil’s ‘Preston Series’ when, in April, the much admired conductor Andrew Manze returns to the Guild Hall for an attractive programme of Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Rossini.

Michael Cookson

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