Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham. 16 November 2022. 5*****. William Ruff


Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

November 16 2022


Review: William Ruff


High octane, colourful performances from the RLPO and Isata Kanneh-Mason

Star pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason was back home in Nottingham on Wednesday evening to give an immaculate performance of an elegant, sophisticated musical joke: the Variations on a Nursery Song by Hungarian composer Ernó Dohnányi.

Of course, you have to be in the know to find it funny because it’s packed with musical digs at his fellow composers.  Even if you don’t spot the fun he has at the expense of people like Brahms, Mahler and Johann Strauss, you’ll probably spot his good-natured teasing of Paul Dukas and his Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  But no one ever misses the musical ambush of the opening:  the gloomy, Wagnerian depiction of the end of the world…followed by the solo piano playing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, as innocently as you like. 

Even if you’ve heard the piece a hundred times it still works and audiences always chuckle.  Dohnányi may be having fun in this piece but it’s still fiendishly virtuosic music to perform, requiring huge technical skill, lightness of touch and an ability to change emotional gear rapidly between each vividly characterised variation.  Isata Kanneh-Mason has all the technique and charismatic sparkle needed to bring these Variations vividly to life.  And in this she was warmly supported by the RLPO’s colourful, highly responsive playing and by the incisive direction of Venezuelan conductor Domingo Hindoyan, making his Nottingham debut.

Before this the RLPO played the suite from Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince.  The story is strangely Freudian and tells of a Prince who falls in love with the Princess next door.  A mischievous fairy puts a spell on the trees and the stream, preventing him from reaching his beloved.  When he eventually gets to her, the Princess isn’t interested in him, so he makes a sort of puppet of himself, dresses it in his cloak (and some of his hair!), waves it around on his staff and manages to grab the Princess’s interest.  To cut a rather long story short, there are more antics from the naughty fairy (she makes the wooden prince come alive, amongst other things) leading to a possible (though unlikely) happy ending.

The suite paints musical pictures of the main protagonists, as well as the forest, the stream and the puppet prince.  The score is one of Bartók’s most colourful and requires virtuoso playing from all sections of the orchestra.  The RLPO not only met the composer’s challenges but shone whilst doing so, clearly at home in Bartók’s Hungarian sound-world, skilfully projecting the vibrant driving rhythms of the faster movements and creating some wonderfully luminous sounds in the quieter sections.

The final piece on the programme was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, a work which is so well-known that no orchestra which takes it on can allow itself to cruise along on auto-pilot.  They have to play it as if it’s never been played before.  Domingo Hindoyan managed to strip off some of the old varnish which can cling to the familiar (but undeniably beautiful) tunes, stoking the emotional fire of the outer movements whilst allowing the heartfelt songs of the slow movement to breathe.  Everywhere there was attention to detail: the careful gradation of tempi, for instance, and a concern for orchestral balance which revealed unexpected details and textures. 

At the end the conductor ensured that each section of the RLPO took a bow to acknowledge the audience’s ovation.  And well they deserved it.

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Domingo Hindoyan, conductor

Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano

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