Prom 70: The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – Honeggar, Rachmaninov, Ortiz and Bernstein

Arthur Honegger

Sergey Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op.30

Gabriela Ortiz
Clara (UK premiere)

Leonard Bernstein
Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’

Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Domingo Hindoyan

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 8 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Those wanting an adrenalin fix had no reason to look any further than this penultimate Prom that seemed to encompass ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue’. 

Arthur Honegger’s Rugby, or Symphonic Movement No. 2, was written for the recently formed Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in 1928 and its restless energy fully captures the vitality of the sport that it evokes. Honegger insisted the piece was not programme music, but an evocation of the game’s ‘attacks and counterattacks’ imagined at the Stade de Colombes. Marked by Stravinskian gestures and vividly scored, this performance underlined its relentless athleticism and was strongly conveyed by team Liverpool. If perhaps too indigestible for an amuse-bouche, this rarity neatly coincided with the start of the Rugby World Cup in France.

Far more compelling was the music making from the 34-year-old blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii who had made his Proms debut in 2013 with Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Learning scores largely from recordings and Braille, it’s little wonder Tsujii has acquired pop star status in his native Japan, and watching him perform, after running his right hand to the end of the keyboard to gauge where to place his hands, one can only marvel at his achievements. There is no doubting his technique, although the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto brought both finesse and a little clunkiness, a small price to pay for not being able to see one’s fingers on the keyboard. The account was an understated collaboration that allowed plenty of inner detail to register, with well-judged tempi bringing nothing sentimental or overly histrionic. Silky strings paved the way for Tsujii’s bone china tone in the ‘Intermezzo’, now variously passionate and glittering, its Hollywood tune ardently shaped. The Finale’s rollercoaster journey sashayed along with impressive momentum, its bravura apotheosis prompting a standing ovation. As an encore Tsujii gave the riotously jazzy Concert Etude Op. 40, No. 1 by Soviet composer Nikolai Kapustin. 

The relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife was the starting point for Clara by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz: a 2021 work here receiving its UK premiere. Variously arresting, dreamy and shape shifting, its five movements conjured, not so much a musical portrait, but a personal response from Ortiz, its startling orchestral sonorities including one unsettling passage for solo cello and muted brass that carried echoes of Charles Ives. For all its imaginative scoring, this Schumann encounter was possibly a creative leap too far, its invented interior life causing some head scratching from my immediate neighbour.

More obviously related to its subject was Bernstein’s West Side Story for which his Symphonic Dances were arranged in 1960. And what a rousing finish this was to the season. With playing as electrifying as this, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Domingo Hindoyan are clearly at the top of their game.

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