Jennifer Johnston (soprano, above), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)
Deutsch Phantasma (2022) [RLPO co-commission: UK premiere] Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-5) Scriabin Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.43 ‘The Divine Poem’ (1902-4)
Philharmonic Hall, London Thursday 4 May 2023
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
He may now be the orchestra’s conductor laureate, but the 15-year partnership between Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was always tangible in this evening’s concert – its refreshingly different programme summoning the best from both orchestra and conductor.
Co-commissioning music by Bernd Richard Deutsch was an astute move – the Vienna-based composer now in his mid-40s and among the leading composers of his generation. Taking its cue from the Beethoven Frieze which Gustav Klimt devised for the 14th Vienna Secessionist Exhibition in 1902, this 15-minute piece takes a pointedly dialectical route as it evolves from the fractured uncertainty of yearning and suffering, via the cumulative intensity of a struggle against hostile forces, to the attainment of happiness through poetic creation. To what degree this might be a commentary on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as embodied in the three parts of Klimt’s opus) is uncertain, but the motivic ingenuity and orchestral virtuosity of Deutsch’s response can hardly be doubted – not least in a performance as assured and committed as this.
If the indisposition of Adela Zaharia meant the regrettable omission of Strauss’s rarely heard Brentano-Lieder from tonight’s concert (though Petrenko has scheduled them with the Royal Philharmonic next season), hearing Jennifer Johnston in Mahler’s Gesellen-Lieder was by no means a hardship. The four songs, to the composer’s own texts, comprise an overview of his preoccupations (creative and otherwise) in his mid-20s with numerous anticipations of what became his First Symphony. Outlining a delicate interplay of pensiveness and wistfulness in the initial song, Johnston was no less attentive to its successor’s mingling of innocence with experience, and if the surging histrionics of the third song bordered on the melodramatic, the fatalistic procession of the final number felt the more affecting for its restrained eloquence.
Petrenko (above) set down a highly regarded cycle of Scriabin Symphonies over his tenure with the Oslo Philharmonic, and if the RLPO lacked any of that orchestra’s fastidious poise, the sheer verve and energy of its playing more then compensated. Not least in an opening movement whose unfolding can seem longer on ambition than attainment, but which was held together with unforced conviction – the most often prolix development duly emerging with a tautness to make it more than usually emblematic of this work’s metaphysical Struggles as a whole.
Outwardly more compact, the remaining movements require astute and cumulative handling such as these received here. The alternately enchanting and ominous Delights melded into an enfolding yet never amorphous entity, out of which the more animated motion of Divine Play gradually brought together earlier ideas on its way to an apotheosis whose amalgam of the work’s principal themes yielded grandiloquence without undue bathos. Scriabin’s cosmic aspirations thereby seemed the more ‘real’ for being the expression of purely musical forces. An expanded RLPO (its nine horns arrayed across the upper tier of the platform) was heard to advantage in the ambience of Philharmonic Hall, contributions by trumpeter Richard Cowen and leader Thelma Handy enhancing what was an authoritative and memorable performance.
Today we learned of the sad news that conductor Libor Pešek has died at the age of 89.
A tribute to him has been posted on social media by his management company IMG, while the artist page they held for him contains details on his conducting career.
Libor Pešek made some particularly fine recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra when Virgin Classics was in the ascendancy in the 1990s. They include a cycle of the symphonies of Dvořák but also a rather wonderful disc introducing us to the music of Vítězslav Novák, and in particular his Slovak Suite. The recording became extremely popular with Classic FM listeners, and has led to something of a revival for the composer.
The playlist enclosed here is almost exclusively of Czech music, including works by Suk and Smetana, but we also include a nod to some extremely fine recordings of British music the conductor made, notably Britten’s Young Person’s Guide.
Any listener to classical music from the 1980s onwards will surely have encountered Libor Pešek’s art, and we can appreciate it here:
The new Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra talks to Arcana about his appointment, the importance of an orchestra in its community and what he hopes to bring to the city of Liverpool.
interview by Ben Hogwood
It is a tall order indeed, following Vasily Petrenko onto the conductor’s rostrum at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Domingo Hindoyan is the man chosen to fill the sizeable shoes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor, and he has joined Arcana to chat about the opportunities that lie ahead for him and for one of Britain’s finest orchestras.
He brings with him a positive energy, channelled through the most sonorous of voices. He could easily be mistaken for a baritone singer on this evidence alone, but his perspective as a conductor is brought immediately to the front. We begin by talking about one of his first appointments with the orchestra, his first Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in September this year. On the program were Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, a new piece from Grace-Evangeline Mason (The Imagined Forest), Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and finally Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber.
The concert received extremely favourable reviews and was a great experience for the Venezuelan conductor himself. “It was a unique moment, a special moment in my career and in my musical life. It was my first concert as chief conductor, and the very special atmosphere of the Proms is unique around all the concert halls in the world.”
We talk about his decision to end with the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. “It is a great piece, and I had a lot of fun working on it, especially comparing it to what Weber wrote with the piano pieces. It is very, very clever, and shows perfectly all the facets of the orchestra, stressing a little bit on the brass section and the percussion. We have a fantastic set of bells, so we could use them in the second Turandot movement. We had a lot of fun. There was of course a link between all these pieces, with the 20th century composers, Strauss and Hindemith, but also an American connection between Hindemith and Dvořák. It is probably not obvious, but we’re talking about two composers who were influenced by the plantation music and by American music. Dvorak was the first one who really developed that to another level, and in the concerto, you don’t see as much as you can in the New World Symphony or the American string quartet, but you have in the second movement all the elements of American music. Hindemith was impressed later with some jazz moments we have in the second movement.”
He speaks very fondly of the Strauss, too. “Don Juan is a masterpiece, a showpiece for the orchestra. It’s a very difficult piece for orchestras, though today a little less as the technical level of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is very high. When you are technically free as the orchestra is, it is a piece that has thousands of colours, situations and emotions that we can explore. Every time I conduct it, I find new things you can do. That’s why it’s a masterpiece – all masterpieces have this characteristic.”
Hindoyan recalls his first visit to Liverpool. “It was not that long ago, in summer 2019. I conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, among other pieces of course. It’s not an easy piece to start a relationship with an orchestra, because every orchestra knows it very well, but I remember that immediately the chemistry was right. The energy was right too, so we could really rehearse in a natural way, as if we knew each other from a long time ago. The second time was also very special, because I could play some Latin American repertoire with a colleague of mine, Pacho Flores, a Venezuelan trumpet player. This was where I conducted Don Juan for the first time with the orchestra, and then I did Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Since the beginning the relationship has been very natural, with a great chemistry. So far it is going very well!”
On meeting an orchestra for the first time, how does a conductor gauge their strengths and common ground? “That’s a very interesting question, because that moment is probably the most important moment together with the concert. I was an orchestral musician, and if you ask a musician how it is when a conductor is with them for the first time, they will always tell you they know after one minute, as soon as they stand on the podium, they know if things will be OK or not. From the conductor’s point of view, it is also the same. From the first upbeat, and the first two or three minutes, you feel how it will go. You are not like a football trainer, where you are going to analyse the team against you with videos and so on. I don’t do this, and I have never met a colleague who does it. After five minutes you understand the strengths and the weaknesses, and then start working your way through with your ear and with your version of the music, the score you have in front of you. You try to achieve the sounds and version you want. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk, you can go with a gesture alone. It is a very interesting side of this job, the psychological contact with and between the musicians. It’s magic, and thanks to the scores and the genius of the composers!”
Domingo is conscious of the city’s fortunate position in having the Philharmonic Hall at their disposal, and when I suggest there is a buzz for classical music in the city, he agrees. “I also felt it! The city is lucky to have its own concert hall, and the orchestra is lucky to have a concert hall where many things happen, and where it is the cultural reference of the city. It is not only the concerts of the Philharmonic, but it is the pop concerts, the small ensembles, the music room – many, many activities. The daily life, after the pandemic, is that almost every day something is happening. These walls are used to beautiful vibrations of music, but one of the things that attracted me most to the orchestra was the community work they do, and how they want to expand to the community what’s happening in the concert hall. It is a symbiosis, from the stage to the community but also from the community to the stage. People get to know the faces of the musicians, the conductors, the guest conductors, and so the orchestra is the baby of the city.”
Hindoyan speaks from personal experience. “I am Venezuelan, and I grew up in Venezuela. I was part of El Sistema, a huge organisation of more than one million people. I studied violin and then conducting in Geneva. We had the idea with the Geneva Conservatory of founding an El Sistema project in Geneva. This year is ten years since we did it, and it’s working very well. It has brought music to some neighbourhoods that would not normally play music. There are two beautiful orchestras, one aged 10 to 16, for beginners – and it worked very well. This is motivation, and in that sense it feels like home to me, because it’s not exclusively about the orchestra. It is about everything, what’s happening with the choir, the kids, the young and contemporary music, pop music. I feel at home in that sense.”
Some adventurous concerts lie ahead for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their new conductor, including an interesting coupling of a new symphony – Roberto Sierra‘s Sixth Symphony – as a companion for Beethoven’s Ninth. “I first met Roberto when I had to do the European premiere of his Trumpet Concerto, and I enjoyed it enormously to analyse the score and see how talented, clean and transparently he can write his ideas. My heart was even more involved because I see he writes with elements of Latin American music, and I love it. When I first asked him, I said, “Roberto, I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth in my first concert in Liverpool, and how many symphonies do you have?” “I have five”, he said. “That’s perfect – you should write the sixth and do as Beethoven did in his Sixth Symphony, a Pastoral” He didn’t name it as a Pastoral, but it is exactly that, a Caribbean Pastoral. It is all about the nature in the Caribbean area, and in Latin America. The first movement is about the cities, the urban craziness of Caracas or Mexico City. The second movement is the Caribbean nights, and then we have a scherzo with a shape of the perfect pastoral symphony. He took the example of Beethoven throughout!”
There is a reunion with Pacho Flores, the trumpeter giving the European premiere of the Concerto Venezolano by Paquito D’Rivera in November. “I think bringing some of the Caribbean to Liverpool in October is a very good idea. This is what I want to bring in general, to bring more of the Latin American repertoire to Liverpool. We have great composers in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, for instance. Many of them were students of Copland, and I really want to play them more here. In building a program I found it better to mix with other folkloric music. I decided to take the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and couple them together. I think for the ear it is better, because you can compare, and you have some freshness. The Bartók Concerto, as we said with the Strauss, is a showpiece for the orchestra too.”
Are there plans afoot for new recordings with the orchestra? “We have some plans. My colleague Vasily has left a great legacy, he has been doing a fantastic job for 15 years. I will record my beloved pieces, those I feel comfortable with, and those I want to explore. I will introduce a lot of the Latin American repertoire and American repertoire that has not been played so often, without excluding anything of the traditional repertoire, that I love myself and I conduct very often too. It is a wide range of repertoire, and we have great plans.”
He reveals that he spoke briefly with Petrenko, his predecessor, before beginning the job. “We did have a short conversation, and we will have a longer one soon, but I am already on the job. Time for conductors is crazy! I had a nice message of welcome, and I was touched to see his last concert on demand. It was a difficult last year for him though because he couldn’t achieve his last season as he wanted. I could not do the transition as we wanted either, so our really first concert with full orchestra was last Sunday.”
Hindoyan is grateful to have a full programme stretching in front of him. “Of course. Every country had its own regulations. My first concert with an audience was last March, with a small audience for the Detroit Symphony. Then in April I had a bigger audience in Utah, but then in Europe we started with a small audience, and here in Liverpool last June I had a very warm audience for the last repertoire we did here. We did Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, BerliozSymphonie Fantastique and StravinskyOctet, and the trombone concerto by Dani Howard. We had the audience but now finally we have 80 people on stage, and the choir for the Beethoven in October. Finally, we can do music as we used to.”
There is a positive side to be found from the pandemic, however. “I always try! There were two positive things for me. First was the discovery of plenty of repertoire, which didn’t get played very often. Second, the exposure of the orchestras online, with recorded video, was very important, so that people had access to the concerts whenever they want. Social distancing was difficult, but on the other hand it has increased the attention of the players and the conductors. You have to make an extra effort to play together, which means when you start playing close again it is easier. It’s like going to the gym and you have to lift 30 kilos, but in fact you your goal was only 20, That is very light when you lift 30!”
One benefit of the online concerts is the chance for those further afield to see orchestras they would not normally see. “You can watch orchestras in Japan or South America, you can go on tour without travelling! Of course I believe there is nothing like live performance, the energy is never the same. When it is filmed you gain something, especially with opera, but in a symphonic concert there is nothing like the acoustic of the concert hall and the feeling of the sound coming to you directly.”
Domingo Hindoyan conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Roberto Sierra’s Symphony no.6 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’) on Saturday 16 October in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. For tickets, click here
For more information on the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season, including the concert with trumpeter Pacho Flores, head to the orchestra’s website here
James Ehnes (violin), Sarah Fox (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Andrew Manze (above)
David Matthews Norfolk March (2016) Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914) Hamish MacCunn Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887) Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-1909)
Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; Thursday 9 November 2017
Written by Ben Hogwood
This live encounter with Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.1 (A Sea Symphony) was an unforgettable experience. Under Andrew Manze the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are working their way through a recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies, and this performance was the only chance to catch the fruits of their labours in the live concert hall.
There was a last-minute change to the solo ranks, baritone Mark Stone replacing the indisposed Andrew Foster-Williams, but his voice was perfectly suited to the occasion. It was twinned with the ringing soprano of Sarah Fox, and the two dovetailed beautifully in the outer movements. One of many highlights of the performance was the nocturnal glint of the moon on the waves for the second movement, On The Beach At Night Alone, which was evocatively cast.
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir – over 100–strong in this performance – were on superb form, sharply rehearsed and clear in diction, meaning there was no need for the accompanying words. They found the swell of the waves with unerring confidence and passion. Manze clearly loves this music, and brought the Scherzo to a half with shattering precision before grasping the last movement’s ebb and flow to great satisfaction, making good sense of what can be a long movement in the wrong hands.
Prior to this we enjoyed another encounter with the raw elements through Hamish MacCunn’s overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. A tuneful work, it was immediately appealing through the tasteful ornamentation of the Scotch snaps in the cellos’ melody at the start. The music blossomed under Manze’s direction, though could have been even more exuberant in its closing pages.
Perhaps this was because it followed a rapt and incredibly restful performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending, his famous response to the George Meredith poem of the same name. Under the spell of James Ehnes‘ violin, we climbed effortlessly into the sky, ending the ascent in barely audible song as the bird disappeared from earshot. It was proof that despite the ubiquity of the ‘Lark’, Vaughan Williams still holds the ability to stop the listener in their tracks.
The first item in the concert was deceptively named as David Matthews’ Norfolk March. It was in fact a concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody no.3, a piece lost in the wake of its first performance in 1906. Matthews however had a detailed programme note about the piece with which to work, describing its structure and folksong origins, and responded with a piece that was well above mere pastiche. In fact it proved a poignant reminder of the climate in which it was written, anticipating World War I in eight years’ time. There, alongside the cheery and resolute folk tunes, was uncertainty and barely concealed dread. Just over 100 years on it proved a timely reminder for many of those in the audience young and fortunate enough not to have experienced such times.
Further listening and reading
You can read in more detail about David Matthews’ Norfolk March here
Photos of Andrew Manze and James Ehnes (c) Benjamin Ealovega
Meanwhile a Spotify playlist with music from the concert (with the exception of the Matthews, which has not yet been recorded) can be accessed below:
Elcock Symphony no.3 Op. 16 (2005-10); Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction op.20 (2013); Festive Overture op.7 (1997)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
The first release devoted to Steve Elcock, whose distinctive and uncompromising music went unheralded until four years ago when Toccata Classics supremo Martin Anderson took up the cause which resulted in the recording of the works featured here in Liverpool earlier this year.
What’s the music like?
Born in Chesterfield in 1957 and residing in central France for over three decades, Elcock has amassed a select catalogue (currently running to op.26) with five symphonies at its core. The present disc is dominated by his Third Symphony, composed over five years and cast in three movements whose relative contrasts become subsumed into the powerfully cumulative whole.
The opening Allegro veers between dynamism and stasis as to override thematic distinctions in its underlying sonata-form, heading to a tensile yet unresolved ending. Elements of parody are accentuated in the ensuing ‘Ostinato’, whose middle section emphasizes a coarse melody which points up the lunging and often violent activity around it. Its climax spills over into a final ‘Passacaglia’ as long as its predecessors combined, while given focus by its methodical alternation between loud and quiet expression, along with a steady sarabande rhythm which underpins the ultimately tragic tone. The winding down to an ominous, trill-suffused centre then intensified surge towards a tragic outcome is duly capped by the stark closing cadence.
A notable achievement, but scarcely less impressive is Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction (Things knocked down by time or destruction). This symphonic triptych moves from the tense expectancy of ‘broken columns’ with its dismantling of the 14th Prelude from Book Two of Bach’s ‘48’ (played on harpsichord by Richard Casey), through the amorphous textures then eventual eruption of ‘mills of god’, to the all-round confrontation of ‘last man standing’ whose unfolding as a slow rondo effects the blackly humorous waltz near its close.
By contrast, the Festive Overture is in the lineage of pieces by such as Walton and Arnold, though Elcock draws comparably on Shostakovich’s eponymous piece and Elliott Carter’s Holiday Overture for its lively interplay of blithe melody and ingenious counterpoint.
Does it all work?
Yes, notwithstanding a passing tendency to over-score and the occasional pre-emptive climax. Elcock’s music has energy and momentum, but also eloquence and resourcefulness, as amply holds the attention. Mention is made of the ‘Nordic-British’ symphonic tradition, though that of European modernism is frequently detectable with the imaginative handling of orchestral texture and a rhetoric leavened with irony. For someone largely self-taught in composition, moreover, Elcock’s sense of control over form and expression is rarely less than impressive.
Is it recommended?
Indeed, not least when the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra sounds so committed to the cause under the guidance of Paul Mann. The latter contributes an informative overview of these pieces, complemented by the composer’s autobiographical outline. Further instalments are planned, rightly so, but it would be a pleasure to hear these works – the Third Symphony in particular – in live performance; affording this music the tangibility it amply warrants.