Review: The Liverpool Phil Celebrates At The BBC Proms

Photo: Mark McNulty
THE Liverpool Phil are on something of an emotional and artistic high this year as they celebrate their 175th anniversary and 10 years with Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko holding the baton. Early in July, a concert to mark Petrenko’s 40th birthday featured Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony and the Cello Concerto No.1 by Shostakovich, composers that have become prominent in the orchestra’s repertoire both in concert and on record. On that occasion the cellist was Truls Mork, who was scheduled to repeat the work with the Phil at last night’s Prom, alongside the Rachmaninov Symphony. When Mork had to withdraw due to illness on the morning of the concert there was some nail-biting in the Phil camp until the 25-year-old St Petersburger Aleksey Stadler came to the rescue, flying in just in time to get in one rehearsal with the orchestra before delivering a performance of huge stature. The Shostakovich concerto is a large and technically demanding piece, with the prescribed fireworks for sure, but with a deeply passionate core surrounding its central, extended cadenza movement. Nobody could have guessed that there had been so little time to prepare, as cellist and orchestra were so emotionally in tune with each other and the performance received a rapturous response from the capacity audience in the Royal Albert Hall. Another work with passion at its core began the concert, as the Phil presented the world premiere of Torus by Liverpool born composer Emily Howard. Howard’s background in mathematics features strongly in her work, and Torus is built around the eponymous geometric shape, like a ring donut (not the jam variety), but described by Howard as being like a stretched ball held together by a central void. It is an expansive piece, running nearer to half an hour rather than the estimated 20 minutes, and between serene landscapes in the strings that open and close it there are passages sounding like anger and despair. In her program note Emily Howard describes imagining a sphere with its heart ripped out, and at times the piece felt like an elegy for the sphere on which we live. There is a cinematic quality to the writing and in some of the desolate string passages it was almost impossible not to conjure images of the recent devastation of the Italian earthquake. The program ended with Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony, not often enough heard on the concert platform. If Emily Howard’s music sounds as though it might have been written for the screen, it’s easy to see how so many writers of film scores have been influenced by Rachmaninov, with the passionate sweep of the melodies and the vivid, technicolour orchestration. The Phil were on sparkling form here and with Petrenko’s mastery of the balance between emotional depth and sheer Hollywood glamour it’s easy to see why audiences fill houses for their performances. At the end Vasily threw us a parting gift with Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot, played with characteristic humour and flair and charming the socks off the prommers. Flying the flag for Liverpool on the world stage, at this most prestigious of music festivals, The Phil showed us again why the city is so proud of them. Review by Nigel Smith