All credit to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their soon-to-be-departing Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko for curating this latest online programme which didn’t consist of blockbusters, war horses and the usual crowd-pleasers. The treasury of classical music over the ages is much larger than many a concertgoer might suppose.

Vasily Petrenko
© RLPO

What united the three works here is that they were each written by a man of the theatre. Franz Schreker’s dance pantomime Der Geburtstag der Infantin, premiered in 1908, was his first major success; he was later to become the second most performed opera composer after Richard Strauss. Just as we have learned in recent times to re-examine the merits of Suk, so Schreker deserves to be heard more widely today.

In terms of musical language this suite of twelve movements, given in the original chamber version (the full orchestral score was dedicated to Willem Mengelberg, who premiered it in 1923), evokes a number of associations. In his introductory remarks Petrenko mentioned both Strauss and Mahler. I would demur in the latter case for, with the exception of The Mirror and the Dwarf movement, where stopped horns introduce a moment of chill into the music and dissonances signal the approaching tragedy, the music is predominantly festive and opulent in character. Instead, I heard many pre-echoes of Korngold as well as parallels with the luminous orchestration present in Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel. In this splendid performance by the RLPO, demonstrating the same kind of commitment to be heard in its recent recording of the work, the range of colour and sonority was remarkable: celebratory sparkle for the Infanta from tambourine, trumpets and glockenspiel; glowing horns for the bullfight; a sultry clarinet for the puppet show; oboe, harp and castanets for the Dwarf’s first dance; a seductive harp as the Infanta throws the Dwarf a rose.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© RLPO

Shostakovich’s interest in Shakespearean characters did not exhaust itself with Lady Macbeth. While still a teenager he had already honed his theatrical credentials improvising at the piano for silent movies. In 1932 he wrote incidental music for what turned out to be an entirely scandalous production of Hamlet. Nearly all the thirteen movements in this concert suite are in keeping with a stage version that had the protagonist’s ill-fated lover appear as a drunken prostitute: this is burlesque writ large, with a circus-like atmosphere accentuated by repeated cymbal clashes and much work for the side-drum. Petrenko had a twinkle in his eye virtually all the way through, revelling in the trombone raspberries for Musical Pantomime and emphasising the militaristic elements in the march sequences. Over thirty years later when Shostakovich composed a much darker score for a film version, he was infinitely more inspired, using a sinister harpsichord for Hamlet’s appearance at Ophelia’s grave. Fun this early run at one of the greatest tragedies of all time might have been, but you would be hard pushed to make any connection with the play itself. 

Hindemith, the last of these three contemporaneous composers, opened the evening. He spent most of the 1920s as the enfant terrible of the musical establishment, writing in addition to his much-derided Gebrauchsmusik (utilitarian music) a succession of shorter operas. By the time he came to write his Amor and Psyche overture in 1942 (he never got round to completing what was intended to be a complete ballet), his music had mellowed. Petrenko brought out the bright lustrous colours and characteristic aspects of the instrumentation such as the Baroque-like curlicues from solo oboe and violin as well as the fizzing energy.

Video presentation under Sonia Lovett was excellent, with all close-ups of soloists musically relevant.

 

This performance was reviewed from the RLPO video stream

 

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Vasily Petrenko
© RLPO
Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© RLPO