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Stravinsky, Finzi, Shostakovich, Delius: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor & piano soloist). Guild Hall, Preston  1.2.2011 (MC)

Circus Polka (1942/44)

Finzi: Eclogue for piano and strings (1925/29, rev. 1940s)

Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No.2 (1957)

Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1945)

At first sight this programme of music from English and Russian born composers seemed to go together as well as ice-cream and sardines. Appearances can be deceptive as this was one of the most enjoyable concerts I have heard for some time. It began with the Circus Polka was originally composed by Stravinsky for George Balanchine’s unlikely ballet production featuring fifty young elephants and fifty ballerinas at the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Stravinsky’s frivolous orchestral score made a stirring curtain raiser.

The title ‘Eclogue’ is the name that a publisher gave to the reworked slow movement of Finzi’s abandoned piano concerto. As piano soloist and director Andrew Litton with eloquence and purity did full justice to this beautifully crafted bucolic dreamscape. Cleverly orchestrated,  the popular and joyous Piano Concerto No.2 demonstrates that Shostakovich didn’t excel only when writing darkly and bitterly serious music. Once again directing from the piano the assured Litton obtained glowing keyboard colour in abundance. The spiky martial rhythms of the buoyant opening Allegro contrasted starkly with the captivating romanticism and ravishing melodies of the sublime Andante. Litton’s punchy playing with heaps of momentum brought the Finale to a thrilling close.

Delius composed his poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring whilst in France weaving in the melody of a Norwegian folk tune. This attractively played account from Litton and the Liverpool Phil was a convincing musical nature portrait of an English spring morning. Enhancing the pastoral mood were the refined and mellow contributions from the oboe, flute and clarinet and the golden toned strings were simply glorious.

An early Stravinsky masterwork the Firebird Suite was the evening’s centrepiece. We heard the 1945 concert suite that Stravinsky arranged from his 1910 score for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Under the direction of Andrew Litton, the work that propelled Stravinsky to the brink of stardom was a colourful and heady journey through a magical world of Russian fairy tales. Simply sublime was the rendition of the bewitching Princess’s Round Dance. With the woodwind impressing, the playing of the principal oboe was especially stunning displaying a gorgeous reedy timbre. Led by a thunderous percussion I’ve not heard the Finale played with such menacing force as Litton demanded in this impressively dramatic reading.

Although the programme seemed a curious one each score was performed splendidly. In the accomplished hands of Andrew Litton the Liverpool Phil concert was a triumph.

Michael Cookson


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