Petrenko’s Elgar 5/3/14 Review

I HATE “I might not know art, but I know what I like.”

I hate that.

“I might not know art, but I know what I like.” But also – you do know art. You might not know all the words around it but you are sentient and it is happening around you all the time. What you are saying is I can’t be bothered thinking about it.


It’s reductive and so I hate it. The reductive is the worst. It is the lowest of the low. The reductive stinks to high heaven. In everything. Art, music, politics, football, life. If you seek to reduce the complexity of a piece of work, of a real-life situation, of 22 humans kicking a ball around a field in front of other humans, in order to make things more straightforward for your own understanding rather than consider it further, then ultimately what was the point of confronting it in the first place?

Why bother?

Which brings me to the tricky – and possibly hypocritical – ground I occupy here. I don’t really know the first thing about Classical Music. You know how much I don’t know? I just capitalised the words “Classical Music”. You don’t see me doing that with “indie”, “hiphop” or “techno”. Though perhaps with “Rockabilly.” It feels that in not knowing the first thing about Classical Music I might just be about to make a fool of myself. Classical Music, as I understand it, always seems to be about something I don’t know or have motifs I’m not well enough informed to follow. Someone else does it. It happens elsewhere. It doesn’t happen in front of me.

Last night I went – paying my own money, I hasten to add; this review is entirely impromptu – to the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Why? Mostly because they are there. And because I hadn’t before. I saw some of it in Sefton Park this year but it was all stuff from films being played a million miles away. The programme I saw last night consisted of:

  • Mahler – Blumine
  • Strauss – Horn Concerto No.2
  • Elgar – Symphony No.2

Vasily Petrenko conductor; Timothy Jackson horn.

OK – quick things out the way. Timothy Jackson is brilliant at playing the horn. You’d expect that. He’s a soloist at the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. But brilliant. I obviously don’t know how brilliant but there was this moment once he’d finished where one of the women on violin turned to a colleague and her face lit up with a beatific smile as she clearly enthused over how brilliant he is. And I think she’d definitely know.

But the Elgar. Let’s talk about the Elgar. Crashing Elgar. What did I hear? Well I definitely heard. I heard a great many aspects at the most spectacular volume, crashing in and out of each other. By Christ it is loud when it wants to be. I heard drama; I saw drama, great swaying, soaring playing full of determination and vigour, its pace never letting up. (I’m stunned how still the rest of the audience appeared to manage to sit. My head had gone a bit I think).

In the first movement I heard an initially joyous loss of innocence which became restless and regretful as it wore on. There was tenderness to the second movement, mourning the thing that had been regretted, not entirely able to let it go. In third movement there was crushing process and in the fourth we are churned along before we return to the first initial flush though are probably a bit wiser, a bit smarter. Across the four movements, it was vigorously wistful if such a thing is possible. It confronted its reality but still wants to strive for more. Still believes more is possible.


There’s a quote that I’m not going to ascertain because it isn’t that important to this writing that I think belongs to Nick Cave or maybe he regurgitated it and it belongs to someone else but the essence of it is that there are basically two types of writing. There is the writing which says “I’ve made sense of the Universe and this is it so read it,” and the writing which exists in order to help the writer make sense of the Universe.

I was asked by my companion why I was looking wistful afterwards. This music was making me think of the second type of writing, the type I never have time to do these days (these days! As though this is a blip or something. This decade more like) when there is little but organising and tight, functioning script to be written. The music felt like that second type of writing, it was writing itself, working itself out, not pre-determined into shape. It knew more of what it was about when finished than the composer did at the start.

The programme notes for this are here >>

Reading those programme notes I did OK. I didn’t know the Edwardian into Georgian thing or any of that but now I do and that’s good. I reckon me and Elgar hit it off. However it isn’t a test. They don’t give you marks. You don’t pass or fail. You experience. And it’s an experience that doesn’t need that explanation or base knowledge. You already have the base knowledge. You are a human that thinks and feels.

I do know art. I do know music. I do know what I like as well. And so do you. You know that. And so know this: this music is neither dead nor dying. It’s being played with startling aggression and pride in most cities in the country, most cities in the world. Yes, it’s being played with incredible virtuosity but much more than that it is being played with soul searing passion. It is music of soul searing passion, not smooth, not relaxing, not the soundtrack to a drive home or a commercial or a Hollywood film, not supplementary to the product but there, THERE! – demanding your attention, your contemplation, your catharsis.

They are doing this at the top of your road on a regular basis practically wherever you are. And if you are in Liverpool John Gibbons tells me they are one of the very best orchestras in the world. At the top of the road! I trust him on this. So let’s go. Let’s all go. Petrenko Ultras.


  1. Brilliant Neil, you’ve made me insanely jealous that you went to something I had no idea was happening – and inspired me to give it a go.

    Even if they are not playing the Indiana Jones theme.

  2. Petrenko goes on the Kop too, I believe.

    Possibly dubious on sexual politics though

  3. Frank Monaghan

    Great piece Neil!

    Petrenko is one of the most gifted and charismatic conductors around and who knows how much longer he’ll be in Hope Street so people should definitely go see him do his thing while they can.

    Oh and Neil, if you liked the Elgar then try the cello concerto and then the Bach cello concertos. If you think Sun Kil Moon is melancholic you have a whole new world of pain to embrace!

  4. melbourne

    This quite an enjoyable read. I concur with Mr. Monaghan with regard to Bach. He reaches down into a deeper pit of despair than even Low. But as to the philharmonic, perhaps I must hasten my move to Liverpool!

  5. Neil, if I ever reach oligarch billionaire status will you edit my vanity project newspaper for me? Thanks.

  6. Neil,
    Most refreshing, thank you. I am a Villa fan, a Brit, and also the director of an orchestra in Chicago. We bill ourselves as the ‘original tribute band’ and play music by dudes from the 16th to 18th century: Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, that sort of stiff. If you are ever in town I’d love to have you at one of our concerts as my guest. Please keep enjoying your music – all kinds – and keep up the awesomely refreshing reviewing.
    Best from the other side of the pond.

  7. RebeccaNYC

    As a person who daily performs in Opera, an art form that “everyone” says is dying, I want to thank you for this review. And I want you to come to the Metropolitan Opera (or any Opera house for that matter) and write about what you are hearing and seeing. You’re right. ” this music is neither dead nor dying”. Thank you.

  8. Classical Musician

    This brilliant piece of writing – one of the most accurate, well-written concert reviews I’ve read in 34 years in the business – has just appeared on one of the leading classical music blogs as well. I wrote there:

    “Give this man a job immediately as a music critic. One of the most readable reviews I’ve read in ages. He writes from the heart. He has no prejudices about music, or musicians, he describes what (wonderful) effects this concert had on him, what emotions it stirred (many), and he’s not afraid to admit what he doesn’t know. This fine gent could become an overnight ambassador for classical music and remove a load of preconceptions. Bravo a thousand times to him. Mind you, I’m not sure what the ushers would do if the splendid Liverpool Phil were to get 40,000 people supporting a concert on a regular basis… And think of the transfer fees…”

    and another very distinguished musician added;
    “Everyone should read it. It’s the first review I’ve ever read that reduced me to tears. (In a good way.) It’s inspirational and hopeful. It’s exactly what you hope, as a musician, might happen when a newcomer is there.

  9. Clovis lark

    Brilliant essay. As a musician, I can only wish that every professional critic reads this. Further, I certainly hope you write future columns like this.

  10. It was great to read your review and what you felt, if you fancy a recording of the Elgar 2 may i point you towards a recent bloody good performance

  11. Not once – not ONCE – did I step into that building and see any such thing, in the three years when it was, literally, at the top of my road. Oh all right, the bottom. Well, the middle, downwards. But it was there, and I walked past it honestly just about every single day, and nothing. Never went. I was on my way to Burger King. Ugh.

  12. I don’t know what to say. But I know what I like. This is quite possibly the best piece of text I have ever read. In any format. Ever. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever read a concert review before (I ended up here following a link in a random tweet), but I assume they aren’t usually like, well, this. If they were… [shivers]… I’d have wasted the majority of my life. Aside the concert that was being reviewed and was probably great and all that (I’ve never even been to a Classical Music concert either), this review itself is a piece of art. Well done!

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much. We need more reviews (and more listeners) like this, without prejudice or pretense or stiltedness.

  14. My compliments! I’d be happy for you to write a concert or opera review for me any time.

  15. Nice piece of writing and I really appreciate your kind comments about the RLPO. It would have been even better had you used a photo of the RLPO instead of the one of the Oslo Philharmonic at the beginning. Perhaps you can now edit and change this.

    Many thanks

    Brendan The Trumpeter

  16. Really interesting, honest review – I hope it inspires more people to venture in to their local orchestras! I was playing in that concert and was really curious how the audience felt about the Elgar – it’s so un-formulaic (not ‘easy-listening’) and as you say, so loud in so much of it! But I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment “The music felt like that second type of writing, it was writing itself, working itself out, not pre-determined into shape. It knew more of what it was about when finished than the composer did at the start.” I hope everyone else there experienced that impression in a similarly positive way!

  17. Excellent Neil. I don’t know the complexities of classical music – only that it makes me feel good/sad/tearful. That’s enough for me. And i despair when i read reviews of the Phil’s gigs with phrases like “the adagio was too fast” – how does the critic know?
    Anyway – keep writing from the heart and not the head and enjoy The Phil and cherish Vasiliy before he gets snapped up by another orchestra

  18. Such an encouraging read, thank you!!

    Quite apart from being ‘dead’, people often describe classical music as ‘inaccessible’. It is such a load of rubbish! It really *is* accessible, and this is what Neil has so wonderfully shown us. If you are any old human being with the capacity for any kind of emotional feeling, you can listen to any classical music and get something out of it. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving; the more you get into it, the more you notice and start to pick up on, you start to see even more subtle aspects in the music and it completely snowballs – I didn’t start listening to classical until I was about 17 and now I am trying for a career in it. It’s a really special thing. What’s more, money-wise, well you can go to the Royal Opera for as little as £8, depending on the production, so the whole elitism thing is being quickly dispensed with. It’s just taking a while for general perceptions to catch up :)

    One more thing – if you are getting interested in it, try joining a local choir. Britain has a rich history of amateur choirs and choral societies. Again, no elitism here, they were originally just set up by local groups of music-lovers. Many of them don’t require any music skills to join and you can just learn on the job, as it were. Well worth it!

    Thanks again for a great article!

  19. Neil Saunders

    Elgar was a complex man (not simply a social climber or jingo who wrote imperialistic, bombastic music celebrating Edwardian England) and his music reflects this. It’s very restless and emotionally volatile. It’s not obviously experimental, even in the context of its time, but it is very personal (in melody, harmony, orchestration, etc.) – it doesn’t sound like anybody else’s music, even if you can hear certain well-assimilated influences (Schumann, Brahms, Parry) in it.

    Someone else whose music might interest our reviewer is Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), another outsider who appeared to be an insider (despite his Germanic-sounding name, he was a displaced Hungarian living in Vienna). The classic recordings of his Fourth Symphony by Zubin Mehta and Rudolf Moralt can be warmly recommended.

  20. James Murphy

    I’ve spent most of my career saying (or trying to say) this. You’ve absolutely got it. Thank you for speaking out and I hope lots of people listen.

  21. We’re a classical music website and one of our columnist picked up on your article.
    Read it here on

  22. I think everyone in the classical music business is wishing we could read more writing like this about what we do. Thanks. I took the liberty of posting a link to it on a leading classical music site. It has been a real shot in the arm.

  23. Anne Cochrane

    I was at that concert & you’ve described it perfectly. It’s so refreshing to read a review I understand instead of high-brow technical terms. The Phil should hire you to reach out to others who haven’t had the experience of great classical music or heard our orchestra.
    Thank you so much.

  24. Thank you very much for an exceptionally original review, Neil. Your ears really are open! But how would you react, if there were a symphonic poem about Duncan Ferguson in the programme? Would you, as an avid Red, boo and mock the orchestra playing it..? Because you know, there is a piece like that, written by myself, and titled “Barlinnie Nine”. :D

  25. Nick Hardy

    Happy for your seminal experience. To make Elgar and Strauss, and the RLPO, more accessible can we drop the ‘classical music’ tag as this reinforces social prejudice against this music in much the same way as do the plummy-voiced twits who do the continuity talk on Radio 3 and other classical stations. Its an archaic term which infers difference and superiority (hence provocative) and is quite unrepresentative of the 99pc of composers and players who are ordinary people who come from every type of social background. Its just ‘music’ and it was written by a guy called Elgar who was as complex, contradictory and fascinating as any other music writer. What you call ‘classical music’ is all around the place all the time, and many of those with a preconception of it wouldn’t notice. A couple of months back I heard a Janacek string quartet overplaying a slow motion clip on MOTD. It was the perfect fit. And I felt much as you seem to have felt about your experience.

  26. Bravo, Mr Atkinson! Refreshing, colourful and most encouraging. I hope you have many more wonderful concert experiences. Next stop – opera! I have mentioned your piece on my blogsite and hope you will visit it.

  27. Well said, sir!

  28. A great read, Mr. Atkinson, as others have said. The compliments paid to you by musicians, critics, and ordinary listeners are well deserved.

    You wrote that “Reading those programme notes I did OK. I didn’t know the Edwardian into Georgian thing or any of that but now I do and that’s good.” If you read them before listening, they seem not to influenced you much, if at all, and that’s a good thing. The notes on the Elgar symphony are particularly intrusive:

    “. . . the oboe solo, lamenting in free counterpoint to the solemn march in the rest of the orchestra, exemplifies the essentially intimate nature of this elegy. Elgar’s own words about it are significant. He described it as a “feminine voice” lamenting over “the broad manly first theme . . . like a woman dropping a flower on a man’s grave”.

    Better to just listen to the music first, as you may have, or ignore such notes if read first—again, as you may have. In any case, your responses were yours, not those of the note writer. They were to the music, not to what the writer or Elgar himself said about it. Happy future listening!

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) – http://www.aristos.org

  29. Hello Neil,

    As you will know by now, your fantastic review has created a real buzz amongst musicians. Everyone I’ve spoken to hopes that you are commissioned very soon to write more of these fantastic pieces to encourage newcomers – and old-timers – to come to more live concerts. If there’s anything that you want to know about this strange and brilliant world of classical music, drop me a line. It’s highly likely that I won’t have the answer, but I will search high and low to find someone who does.

    Thanks for inspiring so many of us. It was like reading a cracking anecdote, an intrepid adventure, a fine piece of philosophy, and a love story all in one go.


  30. Elizabeth

    I found this review through some classical music friends who linked to it, and absolutely loved your approach to listening and analyzing with an open mind. Just wanted to say that I’d read and recommend this and any future reviews you do of classical concerts, so you should do more of them!!

  31. (sent here from Germany by a friend’s link)

    This is how a review should be. Thank you so much!

    In the first part of my life I was a ballerina and I always got angry when I looked at the papers the days after opening night and the critics wrote how that jump or that lift wasn’t done according to the textbooks. Right. Because we are people, not treatises, nor precision tools. We give our very best each night, but having to read things repeatedly that clearly show the reviewer has never in her/his life performed in front of an audience can put a damper on the joy of sharing one’s art with the audience.

  32. Again, brilliant writing and so refreshing to hear someone “get” what we’ve all been trying to do all our lives. You’re welcome to come to any and every gig in the Maldon Festival!

  33. Neil. Try Carl Nielsen. Danish symphonist. As good as Jan Molby and you know how good that is.

  34. What a wonderful thing to read for anyone trying to make a living in the ‘classical’ music world. I’m a Liverpudlian, a soprano, running a touring opera company, and we’ve been trying to convince people for years that this music belongs to everyone, it’s just there, waiting to be discovered. Your mind-blowing evening at The Phil reminds me of my first live opera experience at The Empire. It was equally life-changing, as my 18-year-old self decided that this was what I wanted to devote my life to doing. So I did. I’m not rich by any stretch, as small-scale arts don’t attract sponsorship in the way that either the big orchestras/opera companies or professional sporting endeavours do, but I am blissfully happy, living surrounded by and creating the noises you have just discovered. How amazing to be you, right now, with over four centuries worth of western serious music available to you for your further delight.
    If you’d like to come and see some ‘coal-face’ classical music, please come and be our guest at a Heritage Opera show sometime.

  35. janet shell

    How many times do people walk past that building and never venture in? It’s not exactly inviting is it?! With typical Liverpudlian curiosity, you went and had an experience and then wrote from your heart. I grew up across the water and used to go to concerts there as a youngster – some were great, some were as boring as watching the paint dry on the many refurbishments over the years! Then, after many years, I got to sing as a soloist there on a few occasions – I was so proud of that. Proud too that when I came out of the hall, I would rub shoulders with all sorts of people who were up for trying something out. Some even came to hear me and give it all a whirl! It isn’t really about classical music, it’s about whether your mind is open or closed to experience. My particular world of music just seems to have barriers that mean you have to jump a little higher that’s all – but then Liverpool has Aintree, so why am I surprised?!

  36. Sebastian Hübner

    Thank you for this review. Brilliant style! I’m writing from Germany, I’m a professional singer. I love British people for doing things like that. Doing the unexpected. Über der Tellerrand schauen. Bravo

  37. Gary Edgar

    I have been passionate about classical music for over 40 years and every time I attend a concert I am still, like you, stunned by how audiences manage to sit motionless throughout. I often find myself bursting at the seams with emotion and, however hard I try to hold it back, my hands & head tend to take on a life of their own! I have, incidentally, only been told off once for this, at a concert in London – more often I seem to have inspired a bit of movement in those around me! I’m sure I can’t be alone in feeling this way. Maybe we need a few “alternative” concerts, where the audience can participate by conducting, playing “air” violin or whatever else they feel they want to do in order to interact with the music (a la rock concerts). Hope you continue to enjoy such wonderful music – and thanks to the Phil for many years of pleasure they have given me (they’ll probably ban me after this).

  38. This is the most honest and joyful pieces of writing I have read for aeons, let alone about classical music. This is what reviews should be!

    And even though I am an amateur classical musician, I know what he means about the struggle to contain one’s self and sit still, as the music gains momentum and volume to become excruciatingly tremendous.

    Thank you!

  39. This is absolutely spot on! Thank you for taking the time to go to the gig and also for writing the review. We need to hear more of your kind of voice in the critical world (actually that’s a misnomer too, as it shouldn’t be a ceriticism that’s written but an appreciation -as you have eloquently done!). As with the last commenter, you are welcome to come along to any gigs or events at the Subscription Rooms in Stroud if you promise me as honest (not flattering or self reverential, just honest) a review as this one. Now, how about arranging for the RLPO to play at Anfield at half time…

  40. Schmetternd

    Here is a recording of this concert. This is the third time Petrenko has performed this symphony and I’ve been to all three. Thrilling.

    cut and paste in to your browser

  41. I saw your review from some friends of mine who are opera singers – I just wanted to say that I love your writing and your enthusiasm! We all did. It was a window on to a previous time where we just experienced the music and fell in love with it, without all of the academia around it. Thank you for that, it was just joyous.

  42. Fabulous piece of writing!! As a professional musician, it’s so encouraging and inspiring to read this. This is the kind of experience we all hope newcomers (and oldcomers!) to our concerts will have. Your completely refreshing, honest and unprejudiced response made me teary-eyed. Unlike the great majority of so-called “official” concert-reviewers, you get it!!! Thank you. I walk out for my next concert with renewed hope!

  43. This review encapsulates everything that I have felt about the RLPO since Vasily arrived in 2006. I have listened to many decent performances of classical music over the last 50 years or so. I had heard very positive reviews of his performances but nothing prepared me for my first live performance. It as if new life had been breathed into Tchaikovsky’s last symphony.
    I have since been to many concerts at the phil. I was at the Elgar 2nd and it was great, superbly played. It’s not just that though. Somehow Petrenko and the orchestra seem to know how to portray the soul of the music. It often happens too, the way it stirs feelings inside. It transcends nationality, genre, everything. It happens whether the music is modern, or written 200 or more years ago. Russian German, English or American.

    I could say more but the best thing to do is to go and listen for yourself. It’s just music wonderfully played.

  44. Hello Neil,

    I loved your review. So much passion, enthusiasm and openess to this great symphony of Elgar. I’m a great fan of Petrenko. And I’m a Liverpudlian who now lives in London and heard Petrenko and the LPO deliver a superb performance of Elgar’s 1st symphony at the Proms. But I would have loved to have been in Liverpool to hear Petrenko do the Elgar 2nd. And it would have been great to have met you and had a drink and a chat about the concert. Please write more on music. Thank you.

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