The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest streamed concert under Vasily Petrenko brought us one popular favourite and before it two rarities. Over the last year the RLPO has mastered the presentation of concerts for people watching on screens. They have instituted online pre-concert talks by writer and broadcaster Stephen Johnson and post-concert discussions with two or three people involved in the performance (today including Petrenko and cellist Jonathan Aasgaard). These have attracted enthusiastic audiences and have certainly enhanced my appreciation of the music being played.

Vasily Petrenko
© Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Poulenc’s Sinfonietta was written in 1947 in response to the BBC for the first anniversary of the Third Programme (now BBC Radio 3). It is surprising how rarely it is performed given that it is immediately appealing as well as expertly crafted and by a recognised master. It displays a lightness of touch throughout, often charming and delightful. Poulenc seems to look back with nostalgia to the carefree days of pre-war Paris. There are references to French popular music of the period and to jazz but what struck me most was the wealth of melody. The long, languorous tunes in the Andante cantabile third movement were simply gorgeous. There are a few hints of darker things (for example in the middle of the otherwise genial second movement) but the overall impression is cheerful and relaxed. Poulenc never takes himself too seriously. Petrenko and the orchestra lovingly brought out the humour and the finely shaped solos were enhanced for the remote audience by the sensitive filming.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the RLPO
© Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The second piece on the programme was the suite from Roberto Gerhard’s ballet Alegrías, also known as Divertissement Flamenco. Gerhard’s music is all too rarely played. He was born and brought up in Catalonia (his parents were Swiss-German and Alsatian); he studied in Spain and later with Schoenberg (his only Spanish student). He had to flee Spain in 1939 and settled in Cambridge. Even his later, more modernist music is infused with his Spanish heritage. Alegrías dates from 1942 when the composer was in England and is full of vibrant Spanish colour, but viewed by an exile with no prospect of returning home. A prominent orchestral piano added to the distinctive timbres of the piece as well as notable solos for many members of the orchestra and even clapping, started by Petrenko himself. Perhaps the quotation on the trumpet from Chopin’s Funeral March in the final section of the suite suggested that Spanish culture was under threat from General Franco, as proposed by Johnson in his talk. Johnson also explained that Alegrías is a specific type of Flamenco dance based on 12 beats, which can be divided up in different ways and we heard the tension between different rhythms pushing and pulling one another. Here we had something rather serious and dramatic which made us long to hear more of Gerhard’s music.

To finish we had something much more familiar: the suite from Manuel de Falla’s ballet El amor brujo, a lurid tale of eroticism and magic. The flamenco singing from the original was taken over by various instruments. The RLPO mastered the flamenco rhythms, the build-up and release of tension and contrasting speeds so essential to this music. By the time the bells cleared the air and announced the dawn at the end of the piece, we could relax safely once more, knowing that we had experienced another fine performance by a fine orchestra and conductor. 

This performance was reviewed from the RLPO video stream