The glittering caravan that is Eurovision 2023 will soon roll into Liverpool and set up camp along the waterfront and around the Pier Head. The song contest kicks off on 9 May, with the final on the 13th. Reflecting the circumstances of this year’s event, which should have been hosted by Ukraine, the slogan is “united by music”. These words could apply to Liverpool, a Unesco city of music bubbling with sonic activity, any time in its modern history. Merseyside’s musical associations stretch back centuries.
Last week the star British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor made his Liverpool concert debut as soloist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – founded in 1840 and one of the world’s oldest orchestras – in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. We are in the 150th anniversary year of the Russian composer’s birth. This favourite work is on every concert schedule. Predictability and familiarity are hazards. Not here. Vitality and invention made this performance exceptional. Balance was ideal, the exchanges between pianist and woodwind lithe and expressive, violas – sitting on the outside of the cellos – notably revelling in their prominent solos.
At times, as when the soft swish of cymbals duet with the pensive, meandering piano in the last movement, a mood of improvisation took hold. Grosvenor was poetic and masterly, every nuance noted, and responded to, by the conductor Kahchun Wong. This Singapore-born ball of energy and charm is a name to watch. Many in the capacity audience hastened to their feet as the final, imperative chords thundered out. (“Takes a lot to get an ovation from a Liverpool audience,” my scouse neighbour noted drily.)
The concerto was the popular centrepiece of a programme that showcased the orchestra’s musical expertise and imagination. The opening work, the Symphony No 21 (1940) by the Soviet composer Nikolai Myaskovsky, is hardly known in this country. It should be. Lyrical, melancholy, this single-movement work is rooted deep in the modes and dark-earth colours of Russian folk song, and of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. It appeared rewarding to play, as well as to hear.
For the evening’s last work, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel), a surprise was in store. When bells are required in a score, percussionists usually have to rely on the tubular variety. Instead, the RLPO has commissioned its own set of 18 full-sized church bells, cast by the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands. What must have first appeared a mad idea – several expensive tonnes of brass, a headache to manoeuvre – is now the envy of other orchestras. The initiative came from its principal percussionist since 1983, Graham Johns, with crowdfunding from a loyal Merseyside community. As anyone familiar with the Philharmonic Hall will know, it is situated between the city’s two cathedrals and their mighty bell towers. No surprise that Johns, now in his final RLPO season, thought the tubular variety puny in comparison.
For the final movement of Pictures, the Great Gate of Kyiv, the enormous, gleaming E flat bell was positioned high on the stage. Nicknamed “the Vasily”, after the orchestra’s former chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko, its inauguration should have been on a Japanese tour in 2020, cancelled because of Covid. This was its first outing. Petrenko’s name is engraved on the front, with decorative castings of Liver birds and sea holly (the flower of Liverpool). After the woodwind’s solemn chorale, which calls to mind the cathedral domes of Kyiv, the climactic moment arrived. Johns climbed up and struck the bell – 30 times, if I counted correctly – pausing, then striking it again for the work’s final bars. The insistent toll, with all its strange resonances and overtones, cut through the fortissimo orchestral sound. Ukraine and Liverpool, united by music.
If only the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of the same Rachmaninov concerto had had a similar excitement. (I have an inexhaustible Rachmaninov fascination – to the extent that I have been writing a book about him – and was keen to hear it again.) The Russian-American soloist Kirill Gerstein is a peerless performer, with so much to express. The admirable LPO, too, has so much to offer. But the generic gestures of the conductor, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, as if waving through the soaring melodies, reduced everyone’s best efforts to homogeneity. Violas? Swishing cymbals? Where were they? Absorbed in the unvaried texture.
Gerstein was, deservedly, cheered. In the transcription of Rachmaninov’s song In the Silent Night, his musicianship was at once liberated and liberating. Szeps-Znaider, who is better known as a fine violinist, found more detail in movements from Smetana’s Má Vlast. By the end, he began to loosen up, dancing on the stage. It made, belatedly, all the difference.
Few pianists can sell out a solo recital at the Barbican. The young South Korean Seong-Jin Cho (b.1994), supported by the Korean Cultural Centre UK and cheered on by le tout Korea in London, packed the hall for a technically faultless programme drawing on his new album, The Handel Project, with Robert Schumann’s Études symphoniques the bumper finale. This last Cho played with all the youthful zest of a virtuoso delighting in pianistic wizardry. There are many more secrets to discover in this complex work, and no doubt he will. The revelation was the encore: the minuet from Handel’s Suite in B flat major, HWV 434 (arr. Kempff). A once stately baroque dance dissolved, as if by magic, into a featherweight arabesque.
Star ratings (out of five)
Benjamin Grosvenor, RLPO/Wong ★★★★★
Kirill Gerstein, LPO/Szeps-Znaider ★★★
Seong-Jin Cho ★★★★