Performing his penultimate concert as artist-in-residence, Stephen Hough reached the climax of his Beethoven concerto cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a monumental performance of the majestic Emperor Concerto. Completing the programme were works by two composers who do not instantly spring to mind as bedfellows of Beethoven: Holst and Vaughan Williams. The Sinfonia Antartica forms part of conductor Andrew Manze’s ongoing Vaughan Williams symphony cycle.

Andrew Manze © Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

In a year that is continuing to mark the end of the First World War, the concert opened with Holst’s Ode to Death. Not a familiar piece to audiences, it was premiered in 1922 by Leeds Festival Chorus with the London Symphony Orchestra. Holst sets words of Walt Whitman, from the poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Manze’s approach was well-paced and brought out the pathos of the work without it sounding sentimental. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir followed his every direction and sang with subtlety and a real warmth of tone. The highlight of this work was the complete togetherness of the string playing; an astonishing level of detail, with different speeds of vibrato used to carefully highlight the different tonal colours.

Beethoven’s “Emperor” needs no introduction. A performance of this warhorse can be made or lost with the opening flourish of arpeggios. Hough played with absolutely certainty in a heroic vision which he sustained throughout the concerto. His Emperor, which I first heard in Belfast with the Ulster Orchestra almost a year ago, made a lasting impression because of its uniqueness. This is by no means a criticism, but a complement. In a field of famed interpretations it can be difficult to have a unique voice. Hough’s phrasing, voicing – particularly in the left-hand, dynamic contrasts and crispness of articulation made one sit and listen attentively in this commanding performance. Manze balanced the orchestra perfectly throughout. The strings played with vigour and energy in the boisterous sections, and with a complete sense of unity and purpose in the accompanying passages. The winds perfectly echoed Hough’s finely shaped phrasing, whilst Manze brought out the French horns, whose playing was flawless. Hough got to the emotional heart of the gently reflective slow movement, which contrasted with the drive and vibrancy of the finale. As the finale romped along the performance sounded fresh with a great sense of spontaneity.

With the seminal recordings made with Vernon Handley, the RLPO has a long association with the symphonies of Vaughan Williams. What Manze brought to the Antartica was a freshness of approach. The genus of this unusual symphony lies in the score being recast from cinematic music. Much of the it is a reworking of music Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1947 film Scott of the Antarctic. Scored for a massive orchestra, Vaughan Williams not content with one or two keyboard instruments so uses three - piano, celeste and organ with a vast array of percussion. Tonight there was no wind machine on stage, its sound appearing to come digitally through the speaker system. 

The vast majesty of Antartica was certainly brought to the hall tonight, perfectly created by Manze. From the very beginning, it was as if someone had opened the doors of the freezer.  Rowan Pierce’s voice had a tonal quality of times past. This doesn’t mean her voice sounded old fashioned but authentic to the 1940s, the time the piece was written. From the back of the choir stalls, her wordless entry possessed an ethereal quality. She was joined by 30 ladies of the RLPC, who may have been small in number for the huge orchestra in front of them, but were perfectly balanced. Their voices floated effortlessly in the crystal clear acoustics of the auditorium. The Prelude set the mood perfectly for the Antarctic exploration guided by Manze. In the second movement Scherzo, a battery of percussion came to the fore. Most commendable was Graham Johns whose skills across the range of instruments were mesmerising to watch; his xylophone playing was exacting but expressive to the point one could almost envisage penguins marching across the stage. There was a dark sense of isolation in the third movement. The judiciously balanced orchestra with organ created a sense of desolation, isolation and real anxiety. When the opening material of the Prelude reoccurs in the Epilogue, there was a descending surreal sense of reality that one was returning to the hall after experiencing Scott’s expedition. The journey Manze had captained was truly immense. So few of us have visited the Antarctic, but tonight we truly experienced it from our seats.