This on-demand concert by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of its longtime chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko (recorded on 24th March), focused on early 19th-century classics from the Austro-German repertoire. The appetizer was 20-year-old Schubert's Overture in D major “in the Italian style”. In the slow introduction the Liverpool winds, particularly oboe and clarinet, were featured prominently. The section that followed was perky with nicely accented phrasing, leading to a convincing tutti conclusion.

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

Mendelssohn was even younger than Schubert when he composed his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of three excerpts presented in this concert by the RLPO. The opening atmospherics were magical, with tightly controlled gossamer strings leading to the full orchestra's statement of the joyous main theme. Other special interpretive highlights included the true sense of mystery conjured up in the middle portion of the overture.

Petrenko chose to present the Nocturne movement next. If anything it was even more transporting, sounding like its own miniature tone poem. The opening horn passages were smooth and gorgeous, joined by clarinets and later flutes which were likewise beautifully blended. The Nocturne can sometimes get lost amidst the other movements of MSND, but here it was actually the standout item. Was it too much to hope for similar magic in the Scherzo? Although a finely controlled performance in its own right, the Scherzo could have benefited from a slightly more airy approach and a little more lilt to the 6/8 rhythm. This, plus a Wedding March that was missing altogether – perhaps because of the reduced size of the orchestra – were the only drawbacks in an otherwise extraordinary presentation of Mendelssohn's music.

Vasily Petrenko
© Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

It's legitimate to contend that Beethoven's Symphony no. 2 in D major has more in keeping with the “Eroica” Symphony that followed it than it does with his First. Indeed, there's truth in musicologist Phillip Huscher's contention that this is “music that Haydn would have understood but couldn't have written”. I think it goes even further than that; with the exception of the Larghetto, all of the movements are distinctly forward-looking. Petrenko's interpretive approach emphasized that sense of newness, delivering a performance that was terrifically exciting – and often bracing – without sacrificing any lyrical qualities. “Toscanini with heart,” one might say.

Tempos were conventional for the most part, with phrases accented in ways that kept interest high all the way through the first movement while leading to a forceful conclusion. The aforementioned Larghetto was melodious and naturally flowing. The Scherzo had great swagger, with the Liverpool musicians really playing up the Austrian “country side-slapping” characteristics of the music. By contrast, the oboe and bassoon passages in the middle of the movement were taken at a noticeably slower tempo, so much so that the sudden switch back to the original tempo was just a little jarring. The final Allegro molto movement was a real tour de force, with cellos and basses digging in forcefully at the conclusion. Josephine Frieze's incisive timpani playing was particularly impressive here (as indeed it was throughout the entire symphony). How impressive? I'm convinced that Beethoven himself would have heartily approved.

Petrenko didn't offer an encore at the end of this highly satisfying concert, but we had the next-best thing. Because it was an on-demand performance, I simply repeated the final movement of the Beethoven. It was just as impressive the second time around.

This performance was reviewed from the RLPO video stream