Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Online @ Liverpool Philharmonic Hall 11/11/20

Beethoven’s massive 5th piano concerto Emperor, and Bartok’s Divertimento are on offer tonight for the latest in the Phil’s series of streamed live concerts. With the combination of these two pieces, we are guided though just over 100 years of classical music; linked together through the neo-classical textures of the entire set and the reminder of how troubling music can aid us in troubling times.

It’s clear from the get-go that this online package can be summed up with one word: detail. It’s evident that from the arpeggio embroidered entrance into the Emperor concerto, we have at our disposal a clear and crisp visual presentation of the entire socially distanced orchestra. From conductor JOSHUA WEILERSTEIN’s joyous leaps each time he introduces a layer of harmony, to the tender vibrato performed on the stringed instruments, our streamed experience is a detailed account of each instrument’s offering to the piece, with a level of thoroughness that can only be compared to looking at the sheet music itself.

The online experience doesn’t fail to deliver the dynamic versatility of Beethoven’s Emperor in all of its intensity. There is a clear sense of physical relief when we get to the final orchestral stab of the unrelenting 20-minute first movement, which leans effortlessly into the more sombre moments of the second movement. A sense of relief is mainly felt when the virtuosic heights of Stephen Hough’s piano performance finally come to a halt, along with the flamboyant orchestral presence that frequently accompanies it. This aspect of the experience that largely contrasts from the later presence of Bartok’s Divertimento which is seamlessly more consistent. From the charming and boisterous character of Beethoven comes a more unnerving presence, not only created by the muted lighting upon the remaining string sections.

The Divertimento presents a constantly meandering piece of anxiety-driven string movements, fluctuating in intensity to create a dreamlike atmosphere. An eerie tone lays bare from the mournful set of staccato string bows that start the first movement, all the way to the interluded prolonged chords of the second movement and interrupted by jarring and violent bows that wield the troubled anxiety of the times it was conceived in. The ‘bone chilling dread’ that Weilerstein speaks of in his introduction certainly isn’t hidden through the screen, which he describes moments before the first movement begins. He quotes Bartok who describes his own piece as not being ‘of a light character.’ A sensation that is blatantly felt by the live audience lucky enough to be in the room and is in turn picked up via the live feed – impulsive premature claps echo through the stage before the third movement can even begin to lighten the mood.

All of this begins to make sense when we’re reminded of the piece’s conception, which came days before the outbreak of World War II. With this in mind, a creeping sense of community starts to take hold, connecting the live string players to their small masked audience, and even to those of us watching from home. The ‘dread’ behind the music certainly rings true for today, as it feeds into the uncertainty and anxiety forced upon us in these troubled times. The evening serves as a reminder that even in the darkest days of human history, music can serve as a source of relief and community, especially when it was the result of its own fatefully troubled times. It also begs the question of the troubling eras that await 100 years away, and of the future audience attending the same Divertimento and hearing its same pleas from hundreds of years before. Like a message through time, it will resonate as if it were written today, and serves as a testament to how a work of art can sometimes escape the penalty of time.


This review was written as part of Bido Lito!’s Bylines programme – workshops for culture writers of the future. To find out more about Bylines join our mailing list. Bylines is supported by Arts Council England.

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