The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra continued its series of socially distanced performances with a splendid concert of works by Beethoven and Bartók. This time the concert was given first at 4pm and then again on the same evening, recorded for future streaming. The whole concert lasted about an hour and a quarter. There were four or more empty places between each occupied seats or pair of occupied seats, and the orchestra of about 36 players was spread out over the whole stage. Many of the usual trappings of a concert were missing: no printed programmes, for example, and no interval in which to mingle with other concert-goers and have a drink or an ice-cream, but the essence of a concert remained intact. Conductor Joshua Weilerstein, pianist Stephen Hough and the orchestra treated those of us fortunate enough to be in the Philharmonic Hall to an epic journey through the best that music can offer.

Stephen Hough
© Robert Torres

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major has one of the most arresting beginnings of any concerto: the soloist makes some forceful virtuosic pronouncements which are punctuated by interjections from the orchestra. It grabbed me when I heard this piece for the first time, in this same hall with the same orchestra, when I was a teenager, and has continued to inspire every time I have heard it since. The partnership of Weilerstein and Hough seemed an ideal one. The former could be seen closely paying attention to the latter, and both knew when to take the limelight and when to defer to the other. Together they led us through a mighty musical journey which demonstrated the immense humanity of the composer in this “emperor among concertos”. 

Hough dazzled with his virtuosity but even more so with his musicality. In the first movement the focus was on energy and grandeur but in a very positive way, expressed through extraordinary melodies and rhythms. In the second movement lyrical melodies came to the fore. Hough's quiet contributions to the unhurried, serene atmosphere were stunning. In the energetic Rondo finale,  honours were shared equally between soloist and orchestra. If anyone was in any doubt why Beethoven is so often referred to as the greatest composer of all, this performance of the Emperor should convince them.

The other piece in the concert was Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings. The title suggests something light and entertaining but it is something much more serious: the composer wrote it during a summer holiday in the Swiss countryside but this was in 1939 when war was becoming likely and Bartók would soon have to leave Europe for ever. Weilerstein gave a brief introduction to the work, commenting that it was full of grief and dread but also sprit and hope and thus an appropriate piece to play in present times. The Divertimento alludes to Central European folk music and to the Baroque concerto grosso but Bartók creates something unique. Even when the music is relatively exuberant, as in the last movement, it is not relaxed. With the conductor’s comments in mind it was the idea of foreboding that seemed to me to predominate. The strings of the RLPO gave a fine, committed performance of this disturbing piece.