There was a nocturnal theme to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest socially distanced concert at Philharmonic Hall. Conductor Stephanie Childress gave us a brief introduction to the music we were to hear (programme booklets having fallen victim to Covid-19) and then launched into the first piece: Gabriel Fauré’s Masques et bergamasques, an exquisite little suite of four pieces originally taken from a stage entertainment referencing the commedia dell’arte and the paintings of Watteau. The title and the scenario of the theatre piece come from Paul Verlaine’s poem Clair de lune. The music looks back to the 18th century but with an early 20th century sensibility. Childress made sure there was plenty of freshness, light and delicacy, the epitome of Gallic elegance. In fact only the fourth piece was newly written for this work and that, a Pastorale, was the most sophisticated and Fauré’s final orchestral music. Of the ouverturecomposer Reynaldo Hahn said that it sounded like Mozart imitating Fauré – a very apposite comment which sums up this delightful work. We had crisp, clear playing from the small orchestra, something which continued though the 70 or so minutes of the evening.

Stephanie Childress
© Tom Porteous

The centrepiece was a superb performance of Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne. Britten set eight poems, each by a different poet, for tenor, strings and seven more instruments. In the first, the singer is accompanied by strings alone, then in the next five by strings and one other instrument. In the seventh song there are strings and two more instruments and only in the final one do all the instruments play together. The music is continuous but the ingenious changing instrumentation ensures a different mood for each part: the bassoon characterises Tennysons’s slumbering sea-monster, the timpani expresses danger in the excerpt from Wordsworths’ Prelude, the cor anglais accentuates the tragic Wilfred Owen text. One could only marvel at Britten’s word-setting, and at Peter Hoare’s beautiful rendition. His enunciation of the verse was exemplary. I felt as if such lines as “It was a climate where, they say,/ The night is more beloved than day” could not be expressed in any other way. I was pleased that that song (words by Coleridge) was more magical and less sinister than in some performances. A “lovely boy” picking fruit in the moonlight wearing nothing but a “twine of leaves” can seem very creepy indeed. Here the harp helped create a sparkling moonlight scene. 

Nocturne is not all serious, however. The noises of the night in Midnight’s Bell, a setting of Middleton, had me smiling broadly under my mask, especially the horn’s evocation of bird and animal sounds and Peter Hoare’s mimicking of the cat mewing. Another highlight was Hoare’s negotiating of Keats’ Sleep and Poetry with elaborate, cheerful contributions from flute and clarinet. The small orchestra and soloist all came together for the only time in the expressive version of Shakespeare’s When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see which concluded the cycle.

And then the mood changed. Night is not just for profound reflection. It is also time for entertainment, as in Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It is so well-known, but rarely accorded the honour of concluding a concert by a major orchestra. The twenty strings of the RLPO (violins and violas standing) treated it with the respect it deserves and replaced the introspection of the Britten with cheerful celebration. Childress and the players ensured that we went out into the Liverpool night smiling.