Live orchestral music is back! The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is putting on a series of hour-long, socially distanced concerts and it was a great pleasure to attend one of them.

The RLPO in recent rehearsal with Vasily Petrenko
The RLPO in recent rehearsal with Vasily Petrenko

It was by no means business as usual, but first class music with live performers and an audience is what we have been missing for months. Of course, it now looks rather different from before. The audience, all wearing masks, were separated out with four seats between each group of people and two empty rows between each occupied one. This provided much more distancing, for instance, than in my local cinema and, as a result, it felt very safe. The orchestra was a small one with a maximum of 30 players, all sitting a good distance away from each other. The programme had been created to make the most of this.

The scheduled conductor had been prevented from coming to Liverpool because of coronavirus travel restrictions. In his place, with an unchanged programme, Rebecca Tong made her debut as conductor of the RLPO and it was a very fine one. She is someone I’ll be looking out for in future.

We started with an intriguing opener, Sibelius’ rarely performed Suite mignonne for strings and two flutes. The beginning suggested that this might be the dark, uncompromising Sibelius that we know from some of his symphonies and tone poems but, no, it soon turned into a stylish waltz, followed in the central movement by a sprightly polka. The smooth, relaxed finale rounded off this little suite (under ten minutes long). Ms Tong and the players appeared to have invested a lot of affection in this delightful piece.

Rebecca Tong
Rebecca Tong

Next on the programme was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Originally it formed the finale of his String Quartet no. 13 but was considered too demanding on listeners and performers alike and was published separately. Ever since, it has had the reputation of being difficult, intellectual music. This evening it was given in a version for string orchestra which perhaps made it sound smoother and warmer than the original, especially in such a polished performance. Tong directed our attention from one group of instruments to another, emphasised now one theme and then another, bringing out the varying timbres of the different instruments. Varying dynamics helped changed the atmosphere rapidly. Above all, this was a gloriously melodic work, richly uplifting and expressed with a great range of colours and feeling.

When a small number of wind players took their places on the tier above the strings for the final work of the evening the stage looked remarkably full. The work was Schubert’s wonderful and youthful Symphony no. 5 in B flat major. This was a canny choice: not only is it one of the composer’s best-loved orchestral works but it also does not require timpani, trumpets or clarinets. Despite that, it felt as if the orchestra was much larger than in fact it was. The spacing of the players helped, as did the fine acoustics of the Philharmonic Hall. Rebecca Tong presided over a precise, poised account with very fine ensemble playing. The symphony is brimful of infectious tunes. Tong ensured that they came through clearly without exception. The second movement was graceful, the finale went at a fair speed, but Tong ensured that no details were lost and everything was expressive. Who could fail to be delighted?

This programme is repeated twice on Sunday and the video will be available from 21st October. I, for one, will be watching again.

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