The programming of concerts at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has included some curiosities of late, this concert being no exception. Pitting two pieces of core orchestral repertoire alongside to two single movement works for strings is an interesting concept. Whether entirely musically convincing in execution, this programme seemed to work better on paper than in practice.

Joshua Weilerstein
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Addressing the audience from the podium, conductor Joshua Weilerstein spoke with great enthusiasm of both the American pieces in the concert, describing Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte as “one of his favourite pieces of contemporary music”. Written in 2011 and arranged for string orchestra in 2014, this piece was inspired by Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op.77 no.2. Shaw uses the form of a Minuet and Trio but employs motifs in a very distinctive way to construct a piece which is very approachable. The complex string textures were crisp and the playing from the RLPO strings was flawless. Weilerstein’s admiration of the work shone through and there were moments where he stood back, allowing the soloists to shine, especially cellist Jonathan Aasgaard. The slightly anticlimactic ending resulted in a strange uncertain atmosphere in the hall, flattening an already muted ambience.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor can be a truly remarkable work in the most insightful hands. It was flawlessly played here by Inon Barnatan and both conductor and pianist shared a unified vision. Phrasing throughout was simple, unfussy and effective; the dynamics also had a straightforward approach. There were moments of real beauty and Barnatan's warm tone shone in the first movement cadenza. The second movement was a little constrained and the melodic lines didn’t quite find the operatic narrative often beneath the surface in Mozart’s concertante music. The subdued third movement broke the mould, the final bars in which there was an outpouring of spontaneity that had previously been missing, but overall the performance lacked the vibrancy needed to elevate it from the pleasing to the extraordinary. 

In a change to the advertised programme, the work by William Grant Still after the interval was replaced with his Mother and Child. Dating from 1943-44, this work for strings brought some much needed light to the evening. Harmonically rich and melodious, it was executed by Weilerstein and the RLPO players with much sincerity and soul. The sense of a story was strong, Weilerstein conducting without a score, sweeping the audience along in a performance which was equally beguiling as emotional and embracing.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony is arguably his finest work in the genre. Weilerstein didn’t disappoint with an invigorating rendition in which he found the drama, the darkness, the light and the energy in a persuasive rendition. Across the four movements the conductor celebrated their strong and charismatic individualities finding the sinister and wistfulness in the opening movement, the simple gentility of the slow second, a buoyancy in the third and the spirit of the dance in the fourth. Linking the four movements was some considered rubato and a stylistic rhythmic emphasis. A gentle string vibrato and a strong punchy brass – tempered to maximum effect – made this one of the most memorable performances I have heard of this symphony in a long time.