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Review: RLPO plays with Julian Bliss at Philharmonic Hall ****

During the long spring and summer months of Covid closedown, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic streamed some of its collection of recorded concerts online.

And even when the doors opened – briefly – to physical concertgoers in October the Phil continued to provide online output, albeit in a new concert, new paid ‘on demand’ service.

This evening of upbeat melodies featuring clarinettist Julian Bliss and conductor Vasily Petrenko was due to have been staged in house on November 5, but lockdown #2 put paid to those carefully prepared plans.

So it was filmed in an empty auditorium instead.

The On Demand service costs money to watch, but the Phil has devised additional bang for your buck.

With this particular streaming, along with the hour of music there was the chance to enjoy some added value content including a pre-concert talk, and a live interactive post-show Q&A with, among others, maestro Petrenko himself, both events held on Zoom.

The Phil’s filming and recording team includes three camera operators, so in addition to the usual concert view of the stage this hour-long broadcast included plenty of cutaways to sections or individual players as well as the welcome addition of a sort of ‘conductor-cam’.

Vasily Petrenko conducts with facial expressions as much as the sweeping or sharp gestures from those long lyrical arms, so it gives people who might not ordinarily see that (from my usual perch in box 22 I am one of the few who can) an opportunity to catch some more subtle aspects of his art.

Above: Vasily Petrenko. Top: The RLPO 'On Demand'. Photos by Mark McNulty

This reconfigured programme from bonfire night proved a charming way to spend an hour of the evening (or breakfast or afternoon – a ticket means you choose when to watch the concert within a month-long timeframe).

While the sound quality is only as good ultimately as the device you watch it on, the recording was nicely balanced and had great clarity.

The programme eased in with Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, the theme being from the then recently deceased Russian’s song Legend.

Each of the seven variations was smartly delineated and smoothly delivered, including a fizzing allegro con spirito and a sweet andante con moto.

Fizzing is also a good description for Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto, here given glistening treatment by Julian Bliss and his smart instrument with its golden keys and levers.

The work pushes the instrument to its extremes, involving three octave leaps and whip-quick playing in the upper reaches of the clarinet’s range, and Bliss approached both with a cheery effortlessness and a glistening tone.

He swept through the opening allegro’s lively series of runs and produced feather light fingerwork through a section of trills, with buoyant accompaniment from the Phil.

Above: Julian Bliss. Photo by Mark McNulty

The G minor andante, its tone echoing the preceding Arensky piece, offered a chance for some more expressive playing, while the final polonaise-inspired movement with it syncopated clarinet melody bubbled along in energetic fashion with the Phil galloping along below.

The programme was completed with Haydn’s Symphony No 94 dubbed the ‘Surprise’ because he reputedly added one in the andante at its London premiere after being piqued by a snoozing punter in the front row.

The opening adagio had a pleasing luminosity along with crisp playing, eliciting a smile from Petrenko on conductor-cam, although the short, sharp shock at the start of the Bobby Shafto-esque andante would probably have had more punch if heard in person rather than remotely.

A menuetto with real swing and sway, and some nifty rising-on-your-toes musical punctuation, was followed by a lively allegro final movement and a satisfyingly big finish to the evening.

While they will never quite replace the visceral experience of the live performance, these On Demand concerts are at least a chance to enjoy some beautiful music performed by first class (socially distanced) players. Let the band play on!

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