In the fight against the pandemic, a lot of progress has taken place in the UK since the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert with conductor Rory Macdonald and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was filmed at the end of April. Back then, a live audience was still not possible and members of the heavily reduced orchestra had to sit far from each other. In early June, by the time this streamed concert became internationally available, some of those precautions have been relaxed, as concert halls start to open up again to audiences and more musicians populate concert hall stages.

Rory Macdonald conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The Liverpudlians began the concert with the Siegfried Idyll, the most gorgeous musical present ever, with which Richard Wagner immortalised his wife Cosima’s (daughter of Franz Liszt) birthday. On that cold Christmas day, back in 1870, thirteen musicians serenaded Cosima from the staircase with this secretly composed work. Notwithstanding its chamber music setting, it is usually performed with an extended chamber orchestra.

A larger chamber orchestra of RLPO musicians gave this performance. Sensibly, the first 30 bars or so were entrusted into the care of only the four principal string players. It was thus somewhat surprising to see the enthusiastic but large gestures with which Macdonald directed this utterly tender introduction. His conducting appeared to be largely perfunctory. To be sure, his beating technique is excellent, but he seldom mixed the information which is readily available from the score with individual musical ideas. A possibility for such a unique interpretation arrived, for example, after the lengthy E major tonality at the beginning of the work started to change; here the shocking change from G major to a semitone higher should sound at least curious but on this occasion it was passed by in pedestrian fashion. The woodwind playing was uniformly reliable; however, in the string sections, tone, ensemble playing and occasionally even the pitch fell short more than once of what one might hope to hear from such an eminent group of musicians.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The playing forces for the Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonín Dvořák had to be slightly reduced, so that the obligatory distancing on stage could be maintained. Apart from decreasing the numbers of string players, excisions of one flute and one bassoon were harmless in terms of maintaining Dvořák’s lush orchestral sounds. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, perhaps the most promising young talent of his generation, took the solo part with the expertise and maturity of a seasoned performer. His absolute control of his instrument was truly impressive, and the penetrating yet warm sound of his responsive Amati cello (on permanent loan) was clearly audible even in the softest passages. Macdonald successfully maintained a delicate balance between orchestra and soloist, although on at least two occasions, at the end of different virtuosic solo passages, he misjudged the timing of the orchestra’s entry.

For many decades, performances of the Dvořák were inevitably influenced – and often not in a positive sense – by powerful interpretations from the distant past by the likes of Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich. Kanneh-Mason is no longer in the shadows of his venerable musical ancestors. His approach is simpler, more down to earth; utterly musical, while presenting even the hardest challenges of the solo part with admirable ease and impeccable technique. In the slow movement, his duo playing first with the solo oboe and later the solo flute was sensitive and exemplified his interest in chamber music-like collaborations.

Hopefully, with time, his performing body language will loosen up, as he will find no need for the sucked in, puckered lips, the tightly closed eyes or the tortured looks even in the gentlest melodies. Such external expressions of focus are hardly necessary for a great artist of his magnitude.


This performance was reviewed from the RLPO video stream