Christian Mandeal conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a selection of Romantic pieces, including Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.2 featuring pianist Ian Fountain.

Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun) is quietly pretty, the piece opening with the undulating oriental ‘faun’ theme in the flute. The sprinkling of the harp arpeggios with orchestral swells conjure up the feeling of a heady summer garden, complete with buzzing bees from tremolo strings. Under Mandeal’s hand, beautifully serene violins rise up from the long-sustained chords of the rest of their section and the oboe’s teasing imitation of the flute theme plays with its originally elegant character. Energy and power dwindling back to its beginning low level, the piece closes with the delicate accents of mini cymbals.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor has been described as beginning “with Bach and end[ing] with Offenbach” – due to the Bach-esque organ-like piano in the first movement and fantastic conclusion, à la Offenbach, to its final movement. Saint-Saëns performed the concerto himself only 17 days after beginning its composition. In his own words, he played “very badly” – which to the undergraduate who procrastinates essays by attending concerts is comically reassuring.

Royal Academy of Music Professor of Piano Ian Fountain also returned to the Philharmonic for the first time since 1990; since then he has been a regular guest at international festivals such as Prague Spring and recently forayed into conducting.

Fountain’s tall stature blessed him with long limbs that are almost floppy in their movement across the keyboard. The opening of the Andante sostenuto is incredibly scalic, its tempo fluctuating with the ascent and descent of every scale, Fountain lifting his hands higher and higher with every sforzando chord to signal the approaching first orchestral entry. The movement ends as it began, with fingers running up and down the keyboard in increasing intensity and tempo as the conclusion approaches. Allegro scherzando is noticeably more lighthearted after the minor conclusion of the Andante – the skipping, arpeggio opening piano theme imitated in the woodwind fills the mind with visions of brightly coloured merry-go-rounds and toy boxes. Presto is as intense as expected, Fountain’s ever-relaxed limbs moving with astonishing alacrity until the final chord.

Movement I of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major begins warmly with heraldic trombones blasting and a full sound from the orchestra, and this cushiony texture is maintained throughout. The movement rolls quietly to a stop, like a train pulling into a station, accompanied by subtle timpani rolls. Movement II continues in the same quiet and understated way, blossoming grandiosely at moments in volume and energy. Mandeal conducts his orchestra with aplomb in a slow, sad dance that is the third movement, led by the cellos. Brahms’ fourth movement thunders into action with frighteningly sudden and unanticipated force, tremendous volume and power created by the orchestra thundering through the movement. Occasionally the strings break ranks from this onslaught in moments of serenity with regal melodies supported by timpani. The piece closes delicately, a “golden glow” surrounding the orchestration like a “halo”, as described by Conrad Wilson.