Monday, 13 June 2022

Review of Opera North's Parsifal at the Bridgewater Hall


Richard Farness conducting the Orchestra of Opera North in Parsifal

The first of Opera North’s concert hall presentations of Parsifal was a magnificent musical experience, but, to anyone who saw the fully staged version in Leeds, it also showed how much the resources of a real theatre were absent.

Of course you never miss what you didn’t know about. The soloists – and, particularly, those with lesser roles now honoured with red chairs of their own front-of-stage – were all keenly able to convey character and emotion through simple gestures and intelligent positioning alone, and the story was easier to follow in some ways by using one’s own imagination than when interpreting a director’s spin presented as graphically as this had been.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them …” said Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, and it was that sort of exercise. Think, when Parsifal says he’s holding a spear, that he really is, and so on.

What’s more, the Bridgewater Hall acoustic added a dimension of clarity and thrill to the sound of singers and orchestra that few theatres could emulate. Wagner designed the whole work to be a kind of quasi-religious experience, and the hall’s near-cathedral-like resonance helped give that feeling.

But perhaps the leading Flowermaidens, seated in black dresses, could not manage to be alluring quite as much as the writer-composer might have liked, and the full chorus, powerful in numbers and voice as they always are, looked the same in serried ranks, whether personifying chaste knights, temptresses or the angelic host.

As in some other Opera North concert-hall versions of operas, without even electronic projected settings (and they used only the minimum stage lights, not the full available rig) the music was the point, and the whole point. Richard Farnes, seen this time in a centre-stage spotlight, was visibly the Wagner conductor par excellence, guiding every note and nuance, pacing the whole huge structure with both dramatic excitement and meditative depth, and the orchestra played wonderfully for him. They, and he, know that it often matters to hold the decibels down a little bit so that voices can be heard without strain, but when they (especially their warm and wonderful brass) really opened up, the result was spine-tingling. And the chorus, too, made glorious sound.

The principals, as I’ve said in another place, are about as near to a dream line-up as you could get, and every one of them was on form for this performance. Brindley Sherratt sustained his rich tone throughout the marathon but also managed to grow older for the final act by stance and demeanour alone; Derek Welton made Klingsor a really vicious-looking but wonderful-sounding baddie; Robert Hayward was noble and affecting as Amfortas, and Katarina Karnéus conveyed remarkable depths of psychology while singing superbly. Both she and Toby Spence (who filled the space with some ringing top notes) seem to have abandoned the beatific grins of the Leeds first night and found a subtler way of portraying blessedness: that’s good.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

Review of Concerto Budapest with Angela Hewitt


Angela Hewitt (cr Fotograf Ole Christiansen)

Touring international orchestras are back, thanks to the mighty IMG, and the Bridgewater Hall mustered a small but very enthusiastic audience to welcome Concerto Budapest (formerly the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra) and its chief conductor and artistic director, András Keller, along with Angela Hewitt, the peerless pianist who is always a draw in her own right.

The programme offered to Manchester (slightly different from other venues so far on the tour) had two pieces full of folksong and dance and two mainstream classical ones.

Top of the menu was Kodály’s Dances of Galánta – played for the first time on the tour but no doubt bread-and-butter to these musicians back home. Their string tone is rightly something to be proud of, and the eight celli made a superb start to the piece (the following string playing wasn’t as clean and precise as the Bridgewater Hall acoustic really needs, but it takes a little time to adjust to it – there’s an awful lot of side-to-side resonance in this hall). The music has something of the sound of traditional ‘gypsy’ bands in it, and by the fast bit near the end there were grins all round – they were enjoying doing it.

Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, played after the interval, had much of the same feel to it (and gave the percussionists of the orchestra something to do: their two harps and a most self-effacing pianissimo triangle made their delicate contribution).

But before that there was Angela Hewitt. You could hardly get more mainstream than Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major (K488), and she plays it with good old-fashioned well-pedalled smoothness and grace. The orchestra, too, was suavity personified, and its principal bassoon had his best vibrato to show off, along with the principal oboe’s most expressive style, in the second and final movements.

Angela Hewitt’s playing is beautifully proportioned and finely calculated. Mozart’s (his own) first movement cadenza brought a flash of drama to the narrative … and I loved the way (being a director-from-the-keyboard herself on other occasions) she conducted the players back into action herself at the recapitulation. She played the gloriously elegiac central Adagio una corda but with some surprise emphases to stimulate the imagination.

To remind us of her expertise in interpreting baroque keyboard music for the modern piano, she returned with an encore in the shape of a Scarlatti sonata.

Last there was Beethoven’s Fifth. Strings were slightly reduced for this (they had been cut right down for Mozart), but there were modern timpani. There was plenty of energetic articulation in the opening movement, and intriguing crescendos on held notes from the wind players. The speeds of the remainder were mainly brisk, though sometimes variable in a nicely Romantic way, and the horns and trumpets (three of the latter, with shared duties on the top line, to keep their sound brightly dominating everything else) made a powerful contribution.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Review of Northern Chamber Orchestra with leader Nicholas Ward and soloist Craig Ogden


Nicholas Ward (left) and Craig Ogden

The highspot of the weekend Manchester Guitar Festival at Chetham’s School of Music was a concert on Sunday afternoon by the Northern Chamber Orchestra in the Stoller Hall, featuring Craig Ogden as soloist in both Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto and Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie.

But the concert – a repeat of one given in Macclesfield Heritage Centre the night before – was important for another reason: it was the final performance by the NCO with Nicholas Ward as leader and artistic director. Nick has been in the leader’s chair since 1984, and I’ve followed the fortunes of this remarkable ensemble, player-led both organizationally and musically, throughout that time. His departure is a wrench.

Nick’s whimsical and sometimes far-ranging spoken introductions to the music played in their concerts have long been a welcome part of their special atmosphere: you know that this is real chamber music, played by friends among friends. His inspiring musical contribution, literally leading by example, has also been something to savour, making the sound of the NCO one that can vary from subtlest intimacy to extraordinarily big effects. There was one right at the start, as for this performance he had a strings strength of 17, augmented to 27 by musicians from Chetham’s School for the opening Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, by Vaughan Williams – one of three wonderful examples of string writing on the programme. Designed for a cathedral acoustic, the varied textures and sense of the past brought to new life were equally entrancing in the bright, reflective Stoller Hall, and this was no routine performance but full of passion.

Percy Grainger’s setting of the Londonderry Air (Irish Tune from County Derry, as he called it), with a horn added to the texture, was equally beguiling. Then we heard a special piece for the occasion: the NCO’s own composer-player James Manson’s Bânjöeš Yètí, based on a Moldovan folk tune but completely in the English pastoral tradition in nature, with lovely roles for solo clarinet, horn and flute – and, of course, a violin solo.

And so to the guitar pieces. The Arnold concerto should be heard much more often: it’s got sweet and wistful tunes in each of its three movements, of the sort he crafted so well, and the central one of the three is both long and rather mysterious, partly like a score for a Hitchcock thriller (as it’s been described), with portamento slides on the violins and the menace of thudding bass notes – but also by turns energetic and finally haunting.

Craig Ogden’s mastery of his instrument needs no endorsement from me: his playing is always crystal-clear, super-sensitive and beautiful to listen to. And so it was again in Sculthorpe’s piece, which brings on an array of percussion (thunder sheet, gong and cymbals included) to present its ingeniously developed themes.

Finally it was strings alone again, for Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. For me it’s one of the most glorious things ever created, and the sound of Nick Ward and the NCO playing it, molto sostenuto and molto espressivo (as it says towards the end) is the way I shall remember the enriching time that his leadership of this orchestra has given us.

Monday, 28 March 2022

Review of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Gábor Takács-Nagy and Manchester Camerata at the Stoller Hall, Manchester


Mozart’s late piano concertos are among his greatest and subtlest creations, and consequently both immensely rewarding and, by the same token, very challenging.

The ongoing recording project by Manchester Camerata under its music director, Gábor Takács-Nagy, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist, brought a fascinating concert at Chetham’s on Friday night. Word had clearly got around: there was hardly a spare seat to be found.

Takács-Nagy and the orchestra, led by Caroline Pether, got things off to a fizzing start with the Marriage of Figaro overture – contemporary with the C minor concerto, K491 and no. 24, which was to follow it. It was meant to be a fresh take on a familiar piece, said the maestro, and so it proved. With 20 strings in total, the balance was bound to favour clarity in the wind lines, and they emerged prominently, even from a big round sound underpinned by modern timpani.

Big sound was a characteristic of Bavouzet’s approach to the concerto, too, with plenty of pedal used on the Schimmel instrument to underscore the music’s tragi-Romantic qualities. He knows how to be self-effacing, too, and let the woodwind soloists have their fair share of the limelight, but the piano has necessarily to claim much of it. He had a grand and dramatic first movement cadenza to offer (by Hummel), which contributed to the solemn and weighty effect.

The slow movement of K491 is a puzzle: such a simple, seemingly childish, opening tune surely requires some decoration, but how much? Bavouzet began very modestly, indeed making it seem a mere formality, and though the ingenuity increased (and there was more in the finale), I wasn’t quite convinced it was being used to heighten the emotional impact of the music (as classical embellishment really should). The finale itself presents its problems, and conductor and soloist must have decided it needed some drama to finish, with a touch on the accelerator when the minor key signature returned.

The second half of the concert began with a real curiosity: an overture for a play by Goethe (Erwin und Elmire) written by Princess Anna Amalia von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, a contemporary of Mozart. Made-up name, I thought when I first saw it (we are near April Fools’ Day, after all), but apparently she did exist. Was it a bit cynical to dig up her efforts under the ABO Trust’s programme to promote historical women composers? The fact that her composition, a pleasant exercise in Empfindsamkeit, survived probably only illustrates another inequality (of aristocrats versus mere professional musicians) in her day. But at least – unlike Mozart – she believed in the employment prospects of second flutes.

The other piano concerto was no. 25 in C major, K503. It had all the virtues of the previous Bavouzet/Takács-Nagy major key concerto interpretations – lightness of spirit, conversational interplay between soloist and orchestra, well crafted contrasts and, in this case, a bit of a tempo change in the first movement to energise proceedings. The big cadenza (by the young American virtuoso Kenneth Broberg) was a real turn, involving a near-quotation of La Marseillaise which encouraged many a chuckle among its listeners.

In the lovely Andante slow movement Bavouzet soon began to charm with some melodic embellishment, very tasteful again. The finale was full of brilliance and romped home with a dizzying sprint of an Allegretto.


Saturday, 27 November 2021

CD review

It's almost Christmas again, and here's a suggestion for something to get for a pianist who wants to venture into the unknown a bit ...

Eric Craven: Pieces for Pianists volume 1 (performed by Mary Dullea, Métier msv 28601).

Eric Craven is a composer who knows his own mind but doesn’t impose his own will. These 25 short pieces for piano, published in ‘progressive’ order like an old-fashioned collection of classics designed to be an aid to learning, are notated in an unusual way.

There are no key signatures (though the score is entirely precise about which notes are to be played and their relative time values, and there are bar lines) and the performer can decide their own tempo, dynamics, phrasing, articulation and pedalling. Craven calls it ‘my Non-Prescriptive Low-order format’.

Mary Dullea is a distinguished musician and recording artist who appreciates the freedom this gives in executing them and the element of improvisation and potential continuing variation that’s essential to their realization in practice. Recording them inevitably archives one particular way on one particular day, and I was a bit surprised at first how little extra characterization she seeks to impose on the music in these versions – but I guess she’s keen to let the music ‘speak for itself’ even under Eric Craven’s conditions.

She rightly divines echoes of a variety of other composers’ styles to be found in them, and just occasionally you ask yourself why she took certain decisions (such as keeping the pedal down for a bar or bars when a seemingly sequential or parallel passage had different treatment) … but the point of the recordings, which vary in duration from 1 minute 20 seconds to 4 minutes 49 seconds, is really just to say ‘Here they are – make of them what you will’, and I can only repeat that invitation.


Friday, 5 November 2021

Review of the Hallé concert with Marc-André Hamelin and Ryan Wigglesworth, at the Bridgewater Hall

Marc-Andre Hamelin (credit Sim Cannety-Clarke) 

Ryan Wigglesworth is one of those musicians who are practically perfect in every way. The greatest thing to come out of Sheffield, musically, since Sterndale Bennett, he’s pianist, conductor, academic and composer.

So with him as Artist in Association the Hallé get lots of options. Last night we witnessed two of them: him as composer, and as conductor in charge of his own work as well as that of others. His Piano Concerto was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2019 with the brilliant Marc-André Hamelin as soloist, and Hamelin was here in Manchester to play it again.

I can’t pretend that I’d expect it to become a popular favourite (the whole idea of concerto as solo showpiece with big tunes, originating in vocal aria forms and making great box office in the 19th and pre-Second World War 20th centuries, seems to have rather run out of steam more recently), but it gave both pianist and orchestra plenty to think about – and it rewards its audience with four varied movements which rarely lose concision in concept or expression.

The third of four movements (where the orchestra is reduced to strings and harp and the piano sings a Polish folk song, with decorative imitation of itself, both higher and fainter) is in many ways its centre of gravity – probably its longest section in terms of pure duration. Before it there’s a brief, prelude-like movement with long-breathed string phrases and then a Scherzo with almost helter-skelter perpetual motion from the piano; after it there’s a finale more in traditional piano-v-orchestra-battle style, which ends as the piano “wanders” (Wigglesworth’s own word) to a close on a single, very low, note – not really destined to produce any roar of applause.

Two of the concerto’s movements have the same names as two of the pieces of incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1843, which formed the opening of the concert (done in the order they would come in the play): both a Scherzo and a Nocturne, which were both played as the little jewels they are by the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth’s baton (and led by Paul Barritt). He has a calm and precise stick technique which on this occasion gave rise to delicate, lively, dynamically flexible and precisely articulated playing, full of charming touches in part-playing balance and first foot-tappingly joyful and then gloriously rich and romantic.

And finally there was Schumann’s Symphony no. 2: romanticism of a kind that followed very soon afterwards but with bigger architectural ambitions. British writers of Schumann’s own generation used the word “Schumannism” as a one-word cypher for over-wrought expression and neuroticism in music (as they considered it), but Ryan Wigglesworth knew how to handle its idiom: the waxing and waning emotional intensity of the first movement became a structure of slowly evolving optimism, despite shocks and surprises along the way, and its unorthodox finale seemed to keep slowing to a halt, as if unsure how to find the right frame of mind, before it suddenly got there.

But the third, Adagio espressivo, movement is what makes this symphony worth hearing, really: it’s a song without words to begin with and end, and there was, as in the Mendelssohn, lovely playing from the Hallé’s gifted wind principals.

Sunday, 31 October 2021

Review of Manchester Camerata's livestreamed 'Mozart in Motion' concert at the Stoller Hall

Alexander Sitkovetsky and Timothy Ridout play Mozart with Manchester Camerata

Mozart played by Manchester Camerata is always a treat, and in addition to their recent public concert at the Stoller Hall they did another one last Thursday in the same hall – this time empty of people in the auditorium but live-streamed as ‘Mozart in Motion’.

Alexander Sitkovetsky shared the direction with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, as each appeared as director-and-soloist – and Sitkovetsky directed the ‘Jupiter’ symphony, from the leader’s position (and jumping up out of it), for good measure. Caroline Pether was alongside him as ever-alert leader in the first two items: the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (with Timothy Ridout as viola soloist) and Piano Concerto no. 9 (the Jenamy, or ‘Jeunehomme’ as it’s long been called).

Nicely presented in the hands of Apple & Biscuit Productions, with Camerata principal flute Amina Hussain filmed in the hall stalls doing a brief introduction and later talking to Jean-Efflam Bavouzet about the concerto, and Caroline Pether ushering in the symphony, it was an extraordinarily good night of music-making.

The string Sinfonia Concertante (K364) is one of those pieces of youthful Mozart that’s pure pleasure from start to finish. Sitkovetsky and Ridout faced the orchestra from the front of the stage (why turn away from them with no one in the audience seats?) and were a superbly matched duo, neither stealing the limelight but both bringing lyrical beauty and eloquence to their role. The Camerata players followed suit, with suave and graceful playing that was also neatly pointed where necessary and had real weight and attack in its crescendi – and could turn sombre on a sixpence, too. The slow movement had a lovely lilt and long, smooth phrasing, and the finale was great fun, perky and playful.

For the piano concerto (K272), Bavouzet, too, could face the orchestra, and his performance had all the distinction I remember from their concert performance of it together in September 2019. The piece reached depths of expression in the slow movement that he’s explored so well before, and the finale had all its pace and exuberance again.  The piano (it’s got a big tone anyway) was pretty closely mic’d for Mozart – it may sound like that to performers in a ‘normal’ concert, but the on-screen experience should, I think, match that of an audience sitting at a distance as we usually do.

The Symphony no. 41 (K551) is a winner is any circumstances and was given exemplary treatment under Sitkovetsky, the wind players as ever providing much of the distinction to the sound. That amazing finale bubbled and bounced – it never fails to lift the spirits.