In recent months, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has given several quadruple-work programmes appearing to work better on paper than in practice. On this occasion, they continued in this rather curious pattern beginning with the seldom performed Second Symphony of Schubert under the baton of conductor Mihhail Gerts. The orchestral sound was unclear, the timpani had a more Classical timbre, which was at odds with the less period style timbres from the rest of the orchestra. 

Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

The first moment had balance issues with astringent woodwinds against lightly played strings detracting from the refined textures of the score. An understated elegance characterised the slow second movement, but Gerts didn’t bring enough rise and fall to the phrasing, resulting in a rather flat experience. The third movement was paced well with some charming interplay between the flute and oboe, which provided some moments of real joy. The vivacious and spirited fourth movement was a rather two-dimensional affair with Gerts’ choices of dynamics, being rather angular and overly simplistic. Disappointingly, the characters of the four movements were not celebrated or contrasted enough, whilst the playing from the RLPO strings – especially the first violins – was commendable, the symphony didn’t quite initiate the audience reaction it could have done. 

Roderick Williams brought a ray of sunshine from his first steps onto the platform in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. In each of the five songs Williams was utterly persuasive, gentle gestures enhanced the meanings of the texts, which were delivered with clear diction. Placing Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft and Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! first, the sequence was thoughtfully considered. In the final three songs, Williams came into his own. In Liebst du um Schönheit, the colours of his voice were varied and beautiful; in Um Mitternacht Williams’ delivery of the text was nothing short of convincing, whilst in the final song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the baritone appeared totally mesmerised by the music. It was a yielding, embracing and delicate performance, in which the applause broke the reverie he had created. Williams’ stage presence was winning and one felt one was being lead by the hand and taken on a meticulously planned musical journey, making this the highlight of the concert. 

After the interval, two single-movement works, which should be ideal bedfellows: Vaughan Williams’ perennial favourite The Lark Ascending and Sibelius’ unconventional Seventh Symphony. Violinist Amarins Wierdsma was the soloist in the Vaughan Williams, giving a very personal performance, which was the only saving grace. Her use of vibrato was unconventional, but refreshing and pleasing. However, the chemistry between her and Gerts was sadly not sufficiently intense enough for a coherently balanced reading. Whilst the orchestra’s playing was apt, the dynamics and balancing of the strings and winds were not completely intrinsic. On occasions the strings were so soft they were almost inaudible, skewing the delicate textures between accompaniment and violin line. Wierdsma’s solo passage concluding the work was evocatively strong and gently expressive.

Sibelius' Seventh is a rather enigmatic work, but in Gerts’ hands his interpretation was very matter-of-fact and too aloof, failing to capture the subtle emotions with refinement. The sonorities of the strings were more sophisticated than in any of the previous works, however, and there was a more careful handling of the brass and winds which elevated the performance overall.