Book Review – The Original Liverpool Sound
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Story

Written by: Mike Langhorne

The Original Liverpool Sound

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Story

Darren Henley & Vincent McKernan

Liverpool University Press

ISBN 978-1-84631-224-3

Hardback, 192 Pages


This handsome book, a mixture of formal history and coffee-table adornment, traces the history of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The tome’s landscape layout and profusion of illustrations – many in full colour and not only prints and photographs but programme covers, concert posters, mementos from the orchestra’s scrapbook and record sleeves (Vincent McKernan is the RLPO’s archivist) – provide a lively narrative with a readable and pictorial journey through the Liverpool Orchestra’s colourful history.

Which surviving orchestra lays claim to being Britain’s oldest? The Hallé? Not necessarily. According to the authors, the RLPO holds this honour. Maybe. No doubts of course that ‘The Phil’ is a venerable and august body, tracing its roots to the formation of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1840.

The LPS certainly aimed high by commissioning Mendelssohn to compose a major work for the opening of a new concert hall. Alas, he died before a note was written. But that did not deter the ambitious Management Committee and many of the Victorian era’s most celebrated musicians beat a path to Merseyside including Clara Schumann, Jenny Lind, Gounod and Arthur Sullivan.

Composer Max Bruch was also signed-up as chief conductor! But, it was soon discovered, the irascible Herr Bruch was something of a liability. The Committee quickly tired of his volatile temper and barrage of ill-considered memoranda complaining of anything from the noisy audience to the sobriety of the timpanist. And, as as an example of the times, one of the Committee’s minutes borders on apoplexy in recording that a Member was seen in the hall not wearing a tail coat!

With the arrival of the twentieth-century the Society’s efforts to attract the very best performers continued. Rachmaninov, Kreisler, Elgar and many others made their way to Liverpool. Chief conductors, too, were nearly always of high quality. They included Charles Hallé and such as Malcolm Sargent, John Pritchard and Charles Groves made their names in Liverpool. Sargent in particular was keen on democratising the organisation and gave concerts for schoolchildren. He was appalled when no child in the auditorium was able to say they had ever been to a concert before.

Social niceties were still being rigorously enforced by the Committee though; the following regulation appeared in 1906: “No gentleman above 21 years of age residing or carrying on a business in Liverpool, or within 10 miles thereof, and not being an Officer in the Army or Navy, or Minister of Religion, is admissible to the boxes or stalls at the Philharmonic Society’s Concerts unless he be a proprietor, a member of the family residing at the house of a Proprietor, or has his name upon the list of Gentlemen having entrée exhibited in the corridors.” One wonders how such rules were enforced! Did doormen have Crockfords and the Army and Navy Lists to hand?

Other significant events are covered such as the burning-down of the hall in 1933 and its replacement with the current art-deco edifice and the problems thrown up by the two world wars and the far-left Liverpool Council of the 1980s. More recently the efforts of the orchestra to make itself available to everyone – especially the young – and initiatives on new music are well covered.

The circumstances surrounding the early departure of Gerard Schwarz (Chief Conductor from 2001 to 2006) are not dwelt on (at all), but the arrival of Vasily Petrenko is given a great deal of space; clearly a good deal of goodwill and expectations of good things to come is anticipated. A useful selected discography and lists of chief conductors, premiere performances and international tours are provided.

This book is published at an interesting time in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s history and can only help to promote what appears to be an exciting future.

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