The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest “on demand” performance from Philharmonic Hall was a recording of a concert given just after the start of England’s second lockdown which meant that no audience was possible. So it was not live, but surely the next best thing.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the RLPO
© Mark McNulty

The concert itself was framed by two Zoom events. Before the concert broadcaster and writer Stephen Johnson introduced the music and afterwards there was a question and answer session with conductor, soloist and two members of the orchestra, led by Johnson again. These added much to my enjoyment of the evening and made it something more than a mere recording of a performance. Being able to interact with performers was an unusual and precious experience. Vasily Petrenko’s comments about the challenges of performing when players are placed much further away from one another than usual was a revelation. The thought of musicians having to rely on their eyes rather than their ears was startling.

Anton Arenksy is a composer who is little known in the west but the RLPO’s Russian chief conductor Vasily Petrenko is evidently an enthusiast. Arensky was a colleague and friend of Tchaikovsky’s and shortly after the latter’s death he wrote a set of variations on a song by the great man, which became the second movement of a string quartet. Arensky rearranged it for string orchestra and in this form it became what is now his most preformed work. The Liverpool strings gave a very polished account, the seven variations plus coda covering a huge range of feelings and moods, often suggesting the sounds of Tchaikovsky himself.

Julian Bliss and the RLPO
© Mark McNulty

Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no. 2 in E flat major has everything to please an audience: a dramatic first movement, a more reflective second, a spirited finale and memorable tunes throughout. Most of all, though, it gives the soloist the opportunity to show off his skills. Weber wrote this and other works for his friend and star clarinettist of his day, Heinrich Baermann. Julian Bliss is evidently a worthy successor. Right from his dramatic entrance – a high note and then a three-octave downward leap – Bliss led proceedings with stunning virtuosity and a beautiful sound in even the most challenging moments. The orchestra gave fine support but this was the clarinettist’s moment of glory. The final minutes of the piece showed dazzling playing and musicality. All that was missing was applause from an audience. We saw a brief moment in which the orchestra applauded the soloist but the recording cut far too quickly to the start of the next piece without time to reflect on what we had just heard.

Haydn’s Surprise Symphony has long been one of his most popular works and not just because of the “surprise” in the second movement. Indeed, Haydn toys with audience expectations throughout and does so with genial good humour, a feature captured perfectly by Petrenko and his orchestra. The blend of instruments was ideal; interjections by the woodwinds felt just right and the bouncing rhythms of the third movement were utterly joyful. Who would have guessed that the distance between players caused problems?

When I have seen Vasily Petrenko before, my view has been mostly his back from my seat in the auditorium. In this concert I could see his face and his broad smiles between movements of the Weber and the Haydn were completely appropriate to the music and the performance. Altogether it was a thoroughly uplifting evening.


This performance was reviewed from the RLPO video stream

****1