Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Concerts Just Get Better and Better

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Ravel: Zhang Zuo (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Martin Yates (conductor), Guild Hall, City of Preston, Lancashire 15.2.2018. (MC)

RLPO’s cello section © RLPO

Tchaikovsky  Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy Overture

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2

Prokofiev  Suite from Romeo and Juliet (movements selected by Yates)

Ravel  Boléro

At Preston the Liverpool Phil gave the same programme as the ‘Valentine’s Day’ concert it had given the previous evening on February 14th at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Even if you were a castaway on a desert island and unaware of the presence of the annual event the sumptuously Romantic nature of the music would have given the game away that love was in the air. It is a predictable programme and I recall the orchestra giving three of the works the Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet, and Boléro at the Guild Hall in 2013 at another ‘Valentine’s Day’ concert.

Right from the opening work Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture – Romeo and Juliet, guest conductor Martin Yates displayed his credentials with a strong reading keeping the music flowing with a steady pulse. The rich, dark opening of this Shakespeare inspired score created a world of mystery and foreboding while the sumptuous love theme given in its various forms sounded enchanting and the forte passages were as exciting as I expected from this orchestra.

This was my first look at Chinese born Zhang Zuo in concert, a performer I knew previously by reputation only, who has carved out a successful solo career for herself. Zee Zee, her nickname, excelled with flying colours giving the finest performance of the enduringly popular Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto I have heard for some years. Although a popular choice on concert programmes it felt almost as if I was hearing this glorious work for the first time, newly minted. Frequently in Zee Zee’s performance I was reminded of renowned pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy when in his prime. With strong use of dynamics, producing a rich tonal quality Zee Zee radiates assurance, and is an intensely passionate performer getting under the skin of this gorgeous concerto. Beguiling playing from Zee Zee in the famous Adagio sostenuto movement created a mood of aching beauty. Fingers crossed that she will soon record the concerto!

Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet is the most successful of all the Shakespeare inspired ballets and Yates had selected seven movements mainly from the composer’s second concert suite. The last occasion I heard the Phil play a concert suite from the ballet it was under José Luis Gomez and I commented on a curious lacklustre quality of the performance. Yates’ interpretation could not have been in starker contrast to Gomez’s, it just fizzed along with stimulating energy whilst keeping everything tightly together. Prokofiev’s brilliant music abounds with earworm melodies and colourful contrasts that Yates required to be emphasised with the players complying so generously.

Ravel’s spectacular Boléro was originally composed as a ballet score for Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein. I relish hearing performances of Boléro and it proved to be a splendid showpiece for the Phil to display their concentration and skills. As is the Phil’s custom the snare drummer was positioned just in front of the conductor, between the strings. I love the way this remarkable music builds from a whisper in relentless waves of colourful sound to a jubilant fortissimo roar. After such a dazzling burst of irresistible musical energy and vivid colours I doubt anyone left the hall without feeling uplifted. From the outstanding solos standing out from the crowd was the simply meltingly gorgeous sound of the tenor saxophone solo.

With such admirable conducting from Martin Yates once again I must praise the overall quality of the guest conductors at the Liverpool Phil’s Preston series that enable the orchestra to thrive. Playing their hearts out it is no surprise that Liverpool Phil concerts just seem to get better and better.

Michael Cookson

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