The latest series of on demand concert streams by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was scheduled for 6th April 2021 – fifty years to the day since the death of Igor Stravinsky. So it had to be an all-Stravinsky programme, but not the large-scale ballet scores which made his name and which remain the most performed and best-loved of his works (and which the RLPO and chief conductor Vasily Petrenko have recorded to acclaim). Those pieces are temporarily out of reach, given social distancing requirements, but many works from Stravinsky’s so-called “neo-classical” period are just right for concerts in the current circumstances. Many of them require unconventional groupings of instruments, are quite short in length and are novelties in the concert hall. They provide intriguing variety with no lessening in quality.

Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Petrenko started with the Suite no. 1 for Small Orchestra. Stravinsky orchestrated piano duets that he had originally written to play with his children to create a delightful little four-movement piece lasting less than five minutes. Anyone thinking that Stravinsky’s music is over-intellectual and lacking in melody and feeling would have found such preconceptions immediately overturned when hearing the smooth tune that opens the work. The idea of challenging assumptions kept returning to me during the concert, not least in the second piece on the programme, the music for the composer’s first collaboration with George Balanchine, the ballet Apollon musagète or simply Apollo. The music is for strings only and eschews the colourful exuberance of his early ballets. It evokes the world of classical “white” ballet and Greek statuary. And yet it is not cold. There are hints of underlying emotion which come through in gentle melodies and changes in dynamics. Its rhythms recall Baroque music. There is a sense of space and elegance. The RLPO strings and Petrenko achieved the balance of motion and stillness, emotion and objectivity with some very fine playing.

Vasily Petrenko conducting the RLPO
© Mark McNulty

To complete the programme we had Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments with soloist Steven Osborne. The wind orchestra (plus three double basses) made for a somewhat “austere” sound, to repeat the word used by Osborne in his introduction. Stravinsky wrote the piece for himself to play and for a time did not permit other pianists to take on the work. He said that he wished to avoid interpretations or the injection of Romantic ideas. Nevertheless, the world of the Romantic piano concerto is not as far away as the composer might have claimed. Osborne deftly mastered the unusual combination of sounds with the winds and led us through the ever-changing rhythms. As in Apollo, the changes in dynamics contributed to the expressiveness of this remarkable work. Osborne was not demonstrative in the way he might have been if he had been playing, say, Brahms or Liszt, but this was a bravura performance in any case.

As with the RLPO’s streamed concerts at the end of last year, this one was preceded by a Zoom discussion led by broadcaster and writer Stephen Johnson. It was followed by another, this time featuring Osborne and Andrew Cornall, Consultant Artistic Director of the RLPO. Both features greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the evening. Johnson’s point about Stravinsky’s use of irony as a mask to cover feelings of longing for Russia or the expression of emotion gave me a deeper insight into this wonderful music.

This performance was reviewed from the RLPO video stream