When I walked into the auditorium at The Hexagon in Reading to hear the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko play Mozart, Elgar and Brahms, I initially thought I was in the wrong place. The top two tiers of seats were given over to schoolchildren, whereas I was expecting – as one can reasonably expect of classical concerts – a sea of grey hair. Eventually the penny dropped that this was a school trip, and I realised that the most visceral and immediate review of this concert would be by the school children – would they engage with the music and enjoy it? Or would it be sweet-wrappers and whispering throughout?

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra © RLPO
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© RLPO
The opening of Mozart’s overture for Don Giovanni leaves even those us of unacquainted with Da Ponte’s libretto in little doubt that this Don Giovanni chap is doomed from the start. Thumping chords in D minor prefigure the ratcheting up of ascending minor scales, building tension incrementally. These features were handsomely evinced by the RLPO, and the orchestra cannily avoided bulging through the middle of each sixteen-note set, as some other ensembles do. The more hopeful second passage, with its major key and bright leaps of melody, grew stronger as the woodwind allowed the first flute into a full expressivo. It is only a short piece, but by its end Mozart’s ever useful pairing of trumpet with timpani erases all memory of the doom laden start in favour of wishful optimism. So effective were the RLPO in their about-turn that more than one audience member began conducting along with the music.

Brahms’ symphonies are difficult to play, and according to some sources, their first audiences found them quite difficult to listen to, given changing musical fashions at the time. In the post-modern era (if that’s what we’re in), we are more able to juggle different styles, genres and tonal systems, even within the same concert, so it is hard for us to imagine fretting over Brahms’ loyalty to classical form.

But we are grateful for that loyalty. The first movement of his Third Symphony contains enough delicate orchestration and subtle variety that parts of it demand to be being repeated and refigured as in the classical style. Petrenko and the RLPO focused particular attention on the rousing French horn entries, which build two-line harmony with a host of other contributors. The effect feels familiar, as similar material can be found elsewhere, but the RLPO horns gave it full and fresh attention. This was followed by a modulating shift through different keys to reintroduce the main motif, a process which felt like something of a workmanlike effort. Strangely enough, Brahms’ understated style was at times somewhat... overstated.

The third movement was given a particularly emotive rendering by the first violins and violas, who with Petrenko’s encouragement placed emphasis in all the sweeter parts of the famous melody. The clarity of the string section combined with the dry acoustic of the hall to expose the workings of this strange and daring movement. The importance of the double bass’ pointed pizzicato to its overall structure had never been so apparent to me before.

The other significant portion of the concert, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, was also fascinating in terms of its structure. Being a set of variations, this piece necessarily carries with it the landmarks inherent in repetition. But the thematic variety written into the piece by Elgar, who ascribed to each number a musical portrait of one of his friends, made the relationship between each number slightly more loose. The result is that each variation has its own character, often displayed through orchestration, solo, or shifts in humour. The RLPO was able to give each variation a distinct and comprehensive rendering, featuring a solo for the viola, stuttering oboes, and of course the emotional centre of the work, the Adagio, which was played with impeccably controlled sentiment right through its climactic swells.

The music in this concert was nuanced and at times ambiguous. None of the pieces can be thought of as primarily “about” one thing or boiled down to a single theme or melody. And so it would have been tempting to “over-play” and thus sell the material in simpler terms, but the RLPO dealt with the programme in a supremely tasteful and faultlessly attuned manner. I enjoyed it greatly, and the fact that I didn’t notice the hundreds of schoolchildren who sat around me (except for their karaoke-conducting) rather suggests they did as well.