Providing a refreshing alternative to the easy-listening pop, music from the movies and other confections that orchestras generally churn out at this time of year, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra settled instead for a programme of baroque music. One of the most enjoyable festive concerts I've heard for a long time, it had the appeal of a bowl of tangy fruits after a surfeit of figgy pudding. Laurence Cummings, who devised and directed this attractive programme, secured stylish playing from the RLPO strings - violins divided to either side of him - and the seven works were fluidly staged and fluently presented.
Corelli's Christmas Concerto - its finale conjuring up the shawm-playing shepherds and bagpipe-puffing countryfolk who flock annually to Rome in tribute to the shepherds who followed the star to Bethlehem - set the standard for the evening. Cummings provided a persuasive continuo texture, swivelling discreetly between harpsichord and chamber organ, while drawing rhythmically incisive and intelligently phrased playing from the ensemble. The same musical vitality characterised the livelier movements of Corelli's D major Concerto Grosso from the same Opus 6 set, in which time seemed to stand still in the gently throbbing second Adagio.
Thelma Handy, one of the RLPO's most valuable assets, not only led the orchestra with quiet authority but gave an intimate reading of Bach's E major Violin Concerto. Though the opening Allegro might have benefited from a more robust solo line, she chose to save a more exuberant sound for the lilting last movement. Even in a hall built to symphonic proportions she made a distinct impression with her rounded tone and precise intonation, with a crisp and balanced accompaniment from Cummings and the string band.
Making his first concerto performance on the oboe d'amore, Jonathan Small gave a sensitive account of Bach's A major harpsichord concerto, now born again as a concerto for this loveliest of woodwind instruments. Its mellow sound complemented the busy strings in the perky outer movements, while Small had the poetry of the music at heart in his refined spinning of the songlike melody in the central siciliana.
In Charpentier's charming Noels pur les instruments, a selection of traditional French carols neatly done up in instrumental giftwrap, the strings were joined by two sweetly tootling recorders whose piping added a particular gaiety to "Ou s'en vont ces gais bergers?" If Vivaldi's sombre "Al Santo Sepolcro" Sinfonia felt unseasonably grave, his "La Concha" Concerto whipped up a fair old storm, as evocative as anything in his Four Seasons. Since Cummings and these players from the RLPO clearly enjoy such a fruitful relationship the orchestra might consider a more permanent partnership, an RLPO live recording perhaps, or at the very least more, please, of this kind of quality music-making.