Opening the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra's commemorations for the end of World War 1, was Willie Stock by Gary Carpenter, a musical depiction of his uncle who died in the Battle of the Somme. Written in 2016, it was premiered by the BBCSO under the baton on Oliver Knussen. The composer describes the two eight-note motifs that open the piece as musical spellings of the years 1914 and 1918, heard initially on the oboe. The musical landscape depicted in this piece is very much one of desolation. A horn call, occurring several times, left one cold with its obvious meaning. In the quieter passages the percussion and celesta failed to cut through the sparse textures, but Andrew Manze’s conducting was always clear; in a landscape of uncertainty, the orchestra focused on playing the notes a little too much to notice the subtlety of his direction.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason © Lars Borges
Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Lars Borges

Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto followed. Possibly the most famous concerto in the repertoire for this instrument, any performance lies in the shadow of the legendary recording of Jaqueline du Pré. Tonight’s reading from Sheku Kanneh-Mason was one of clear restraint and solemnity. There was an overall vision in which both soloist and conductor were unified on, arching from the first note to the last. The RLPO was suburb throughout, supportive with a complete awareness of the its role. Kanneh-Mason’s playing was agile, exacting, refined and technically impressive. His dynamic range was vast: pianissimos were delicate, but rich in tone; fortissimos were laden with colour. 

The opening movement, broader than expected, had a certain stiff upper-lip feel, emotionally subdued. This could have become drab at such a speed, but Kanneh-Mason punctuated the music with a variety of articulation which did make one sit and listen with intrigue. The Allegro molto second movement was wistful, with vivid playfulness from the woodwinds. The Adagio was where the cellist really took control, Manze following him closely, the emotion growing. Kanneh-Mason took himself to another plain and transported us there too. The last movement was one of starker dynamic contrasts. Again, a broader tempo allowed one to appreciate the full musical journey. In time, Kanneh- Mason will really get to the heart of this concerto and, for a very young man to tackle such a piece, one cannot fail to admire his confidence, his command of the stage and his formidable virtuosity. Bloch’s Abodah, as an encore, captured and prolonged the mood with poise and dignity. 

After the interval the music of just one composer: Maurice Ravel. Le Tombeau de Couperin, in the order of the piano suite with Kenneth Hesketh’s orchestrations of the two movements Ravel omitted from his orchestral version. Each of the six movements is dedicated to a friend Ravel lost during the war. The opening prélude was overly brisk and sounded a little stiff with some woodwind detail lost. Fugue, orchestrated by Hesketh, doesn’t have the elegance of Ravel’s orchestrations, but the long phrases were however drawn out into the finest silvery silk thread by Manze. From here on in, the players founded their dancing feet. The Forlane was beautiful in every way; the strings were impeccable with gentle vibrato, pristine articulation and perfect intonation; Manze here wove the sound into yards of the finest chiffon. A vigorous Rigaudon followed, in which the chiffon’s precious threads sparkled, catching the light and moving with the highest levels of sophistication. A graceful Menuet, with sentimentality kept to a minimum, allowed the beautifully rich light to shine through the delicate layers highlighting Ravel's refined textures. The Toccata, again by Hesketh, was more boisterous Daphnes et Chloé than refined Tombeau de Couperin, but the playing was flawless.  

Closing the evening came the lavish orchestral showpiece, La Valse. Sketched as far back as 1906, it was intended as a score for the Ballets Russes, although Diaghilev rejected it. The work vividly captures the vanishing world of the extravagant Viennese life pre WW1. If Manze had woven miles of chiffon in Le Tombeau, he formed it into the finest French voiles here, draping it with opulence, delicacy and flamboyance. Throughout the music moved with refinement and grace in the boldest colours. The RLPO's phrasing was exceptional, each layer shining through, never overpowering but always complementing. Manze and the orchestra here were as one, whisking along in this whirlwind of sound.