A majestic ‘Alpine’ Symphony from the RLPO –  shame about the slide-show

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at Symphony Hall ★★★★

Near the end of his epic musical traversal of a mountain peak Richard Strauss launches a storm. It’s the only genuinely pictorial effect in this huge tone poem which is, as Beethoven said about his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, "more the expression of feeling than painting". There are none of Don Quixote’s bleating sheep, Beethoven’s cuckoos and quails or Mahler’s alpine cowbells. The storm is Strauss’s set piece and even the most innocent listener is left in no doubt about what’s happening; the plink-plonk string pizzicati of the first raindrops, ominous rumbles of approaching thunder from the basses and bass drum and then the apocalyptic eruption complete with wind-machine going full pelt. The RLPO under Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider did it complete justice; I’d have donned a souwester if there’d been one handy.This was exactly as it should be – so why spoil it by projecting a slide of forked lightning in the night sky? It added nothing and annoyingly distracted attention away from the musical experience.

The Alpine landscape photographs by Ben Tibbetts were there to “create an experience to remember”, which they did but not in the way intended. A couple of them were spectacular with the metaphysical menace of a Romantic landscape by John Martin, but Strauss was giving us all the aesthetic sublimity we needed, leaving us free to create our own images if desired. Keeping the overhead lights on full and using a relatively tiny screen also vitiated the planned visual impact. If you want an audio-visual spectacular don’t do it on a shoestring budget. At one point the LPO’s excellent oboe had a crucial solo, an isolated moment of sudden stillness before the storm’s frenzy – the lone individual dwarfed by Nature’s immensity. What was the visual analogue for this emotion of existential doubt? Another slide of another mountain. The power of the orchestra’s performance – every section at the top of their game – deserved our undivided attention which this “concept” concert impeded us from doing.

Before taking up the baton Szeps-Znaider was one of the world’s top violin virtuosos. He’s not lost his touch and his warm full-toned Guarneri “del Gesu” violin was a delight in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1. The LPO’s strings, with Szeps-Znaider rightly using antiphonally divided fiddles for extra clarity, provided some luscious support with the soloist ensuring that Bruch’s hyper-romantic slow movement weaved its familiar but always welcome magic.

Norman Stinchcombe

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