Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert conducted by Ben Gernon with soloist Stefan Dohr

Another BBC Phil concert, another new concerto: this time the UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Horn concerto – written for its soloist, Stefan Dohr, who is, among other things, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The piece is four years old, which makes it a surprise that it’s taken so long to make its way over here. Maybe that’s because hardly anyone else can play it (it includes both bottom and top notes which are officially beyond the range of the instrument), but Rihm is certainly an advocate who could hardly be bettered.

Twenty minutes in length, it has some lovely, long Romantic-style melodic solo passages, and some harmonies so reminiscent of the 19th century they almost sound like pastiche. It’s not all like that, but there’s a tonal undertow to it, which may be slightly ironic – especially given the little burp of a ‘tonic’ note with which the soloist ends proceedings.

Structurally it’s discursive: varied and episodic, with the only really traditional signpost being a kind of solo cadenza … but it’s one that opts out of the standard display formula and has the soloist become less and less assertive. Rihm is very taken by the way the horn can make a ‘distant’ echo of its own sound, and sometimes (including that passage) it seems to be duetting with itself (at others with the oboe, muted trumpets, or other eloquent melodists).

So its very much an essay in tone qualities, with a little disruption of traditional expectations built in. A great vehicle for a great virtuoso, of course. But the horn is very hard to play and there just aren’t that many of them around.

Conductor of the concert was the BBC Philharmonic’s principal guest, Ben Gernon – characteristically in cool control, letting the musicians play to their strengths. With guest leader George Tudorache and a few guest principals, they made light work of Wagner’s overture to Rienzi, which opened the concert: warm G and D-string playing, respectively, from violins and cellos on the big ‘prayer’ tune, and a lot of fun in the rum-ti-tum marching music. It’s portentousness writ large, and probably best just carried off with swagger.

Gernon was also in his element with Berlioz’s arrangement of Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz (or Dance if you prefer). His less-is-more approach was fruitful and there was a great rhythmic bounce in it (he even hoodwinked the audience into clapping before it had finished).

Then it was Beethoven’s Symphony no 7. Ben Gernon is right on the trend for crisp and lively speeds for Beethoven (and had 41 string players – one more bass than you might expect – and modern timpani), and in the second, third and fourth movements everything paid off really well. In the opening, ensemble was slightly ragged, but once into the Vivace (and the transition was smooth) there was little to complain of … except that in this particular acoustic and with these particular rhythms you really have to abbreviate everything to get the clarity you need. But every movement got applause, which Beethoven would no doubt have fully expected.

Ben Gernon

Monday, 23 April 2018

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert conducted by Clemens Schuldt with soloist Leonard Elschenbroich

The world premiere of a cello concerto is a pretty rare event, and interesting, for one thing, just because there aren’t many of them around. New violin concertos seem to come along quite often – but a good new cello concerto must have a chance of digging out a real niche in the repertoire.

I think Mark Simpson’s new Cello concerto, his first piece written to commission by the BBC Philharmonic since he was made its Composer in Association, could be that good. It’s traditional in form: three movements, of which the middle one is slow (a lament, in the composer’s description). There’s also a slow and thoughtful unaccompanied cadenza in the final movement which, while it may not be as substantial as the solo movement in Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, has the role of recalling the mood of the slow movement and thus giving depth, as well as intimacy, to the whole piece.

It’s also a melodically led piece of writing, with a lot of ‘traditional’ harmony, and its structures are clear. Mark Simpson is an expert at writing huge and complicated textures for orchestra, and those are there, too – but usually with the role of making a contrast to the eloquent solo song of the cello. The orchestra includes a piano, which plays its own prominent part in some of the tutti episodes, and there’s percussion, too (an outburst near the beginning which doesn’t lead to anything in particular but is there perhaps to offer some alternative ways of expressing intensity which are to be rejected.

The harmonic stasis of the ‘lament’ movement – strings alone, in almost a high ‘pedal’ effect, coupled with slowly changing overtones – and the keening sound of the cello solo itself, in the higher regions of its range, made that the most impressive section for me. It contains a very big climax, too – a marker you can hardly fail to spot – and Simpson gives his soloist some technically demanding multi-stopping for good measure.

Mark Simpson says the third movement has a ‘dancing momentum’, and there are certainly pulsing sounds in the orchestra, though whether dancing was quite the effect that came over in this performance I’m not sure. But the cadenza brings back the mood of meditation, before a final gesture akin to a small rocket taking off – an effective finish and no mistake.

Leonard Elschenbroich was the skilful and passionate soloist in this first outing, and the piece was written for him and so bears something of his personal stamp – all very much to the good, in my view. The conductor was Clemens Schuldt, a young man whose command of the score and sympathy with it was never in doubt.

The rest of his programme was Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration – richly rendered, with bold contrasts of mood, by the BBC Philharmonic under the leadership of Yuri Torchinsky – and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1. That also boasted vivid contrasts and high-energy playing of the composer’s characteristic ‘Keystone Cops’ style music – but the sustained intensity of feeling in the slow movement was if anything more rewarding, and the finale included another lovely cello solo, this time from the orchestra’s own principal, Peter Dixon.


Leonard Elschenbroich

Friday, 13 April 2018

Review of Halle concert with Nicholas Collon, conductor, and Boris Giltburg, soloist

The combined talents of Nicholas Collon as conductor and Boris Giltburg as soloist made their shared concert one of the outstanding events of the Hallé season.

Giltburg is a pianist whose reputation goes before him, especially in Rachmaninov, and you could hear why. From the very opening there was a tenderness and thoughtfulness in his playing, both wistful and limpid, modest and heartfelt, which pervaded much of the opening movement of the composer’s Piano concerto no. 3.

But that wasn’t all. In the first solo episode we heard flashes of the drama that was later to come, and there was no shortage of steel in Giltburg’s playing either. Nicholas Collon was an excellent partner for him, drawing a big, Romantic sound from the orchestra – beautifully rich in the strings at the beginning of the second movement and gorgeously blending in the wind at its end.

Boris Giltburg played that Intermezzo in a swaying, lullaby-like style; but when it came to the finale he was transformed again: mercurial, exciting and still forming his phrases and melodies with elegance. The orchestral solos were nicely characterized, too, to match him.

Collon’s programme continued with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. It’s a strange series of wisps and flashes, with vigour and dreaminess – proof of the remarkable ability of this conductor to obtain the best from an orchestra. His visits are becoming ‘don’t miss’ events (and he’s conducting the Opus One set of concerts this time, too).

He finished by putting the Hallé Choir in the spotlight in John Adams’ Harmonium. Written in 1980, it’s an essay in writing (to use Adams’ own words) for ‘human voices – many of them – riding upon waves of rippling sound’. So the Hallé Choir were very much the team to tackle it, along with the orchestra. The piece sets words by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, but you would hardly know it had they not been printed in the programme booklet.

That’s not the singers’ fault, as far as I can see, as it’s more about waves of sound and multi-layered textures than anything else, with the voices sustaining high and demanding lines over a myriad of orchestral figures and complicated rhythms. The Hallé Choir (trained by Matthew Hamilton) achieved that, and it was quite an achievement.

Nicholas Collon

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Review of Halle concert with Jonathon Heyward, conductor, and Benjamin Grosvenor, soloist

This week’s Hallé ‘Opus One’ set of concerts is notable not just on account of the soloists (Benjamin Grosvenor for Beethoven’s Piano concerto no. 3, Jonathan Scott for Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony) but because it’s the first full-length main series programme in the Bridgewater hall conducted by Jonathon Heyward since his appointment as Assistant Conductor.

He’s a very gifted exponent of the art of the baton, and if his style with the Hallé reminds you a bit of Sir Mark Elder’s, that’s no bad thing at all, as it means that he’s gained a lot from his mentor and that he appreciates exactly what works with the Hallé Orchestra.

I noticed he had the traditional strings layout, with cellos on the front stage right and all the violins together on the left, for his programme of Weber, Beethoven and Saint-Saëns: their sound was well focused and precise.

From the start it was clear that he can bring a sense of quiet tension to the opening of a piece such as the overture to Oberon, where a horn call from out of the silence, and shimmering strings, is a magical effect. By contrast, the allegro had poise and brilliance, the strings precise (led by Lyn Fletcher) and the woodwind crisp and pointed.

The same touch was there in the Beethoven concerto (especially the final orchestra ritornello of the first movement), and Benjamin Grosvenor’s solo playing was deeply satisfying – touches of poetic longing mixed in with a strict sense of flow and balance of question-and-answer in the phrasing.

The slow movement struck a note of rapture (orchestra and soloist) and the finale was elegant and fleet-footed, and finally exuberant. For a solo encore we were treated to one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – Erotik, I believe, in name and a cool, Norwegian sort of erotica but very beautiful.

The Organ Symphony, Saint-Saëns’ no. 3, is a bit of a war-horse but extremely popular for the noise it makes. Jonathon Heyward, however, again found subtlety in it, and he brings a narrative quality to the music he expounds, along with a clear sense of the counterpoint that’s there to be found in the orchestral writing (as well as the big, blockbusting chords).

There was no empty grandiosity in either his approach or that of Jonathan Scott, with momentum in the rhythms and clean, vigorous orchestral playing. Jonathan Scott knows the Bridgewater Hall organ probably better than most, and made its firm but mellow pedal sound tell in the slow movement and its ‘beating’ tones blend well into the texture.

Gemma Beeson and Peter Durrant were on form with the piano’s contributions, and there was a nice sense of stasis in the subdued moments before the final colossal outburst of C major.

Jonathon Heyward

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Review of Halle Valentine's Day concert

The Hallé’s Pop concerts master-minded and conducted by Stephen Bell are well established, and none more so than the Valentine’s Day special: last night was an ‘opera lovers’ programme, with an attractive selection of excerpts – some really well known, some a little off the beaten track – plus Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story thrown in for good measure.

What gave the concert distinction was the quality of the tenor and soprano soloists. Noah Stewart has endeared himself to audiences here in Manchester since Opera North picked him as an outstanding Pinkerton for their Madama Butterfly a few years ago, and he’s appeared on big stages in London, too, as well as BBC’s Songs of Praise.

His refined, pitch-perfect voice is a real pleasure to hear, and he’s got stage presence and acting ability, too. He was well complemented by Sarah Fox, a Yorkshire girl and Kathleen Ferrier Award winner who can impress in many styles, including the most technically demanding, and in both cases they give a concert audience a taste of what real opera singers sound like – rather than the ersatz ‘opera singers’ who always need a microphone to make themselves heard.

Stephen Bell’s way with the orchestra is laid back, to say the least, and they jogged their way through Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture and the Wedding March, too. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana had a bit more class (the harp bass notes attractively in tune, which you don’t always get when you’re well into a full theatre performance), and they let rip with the Grand March from Aida to open the concert’s second half. Leader Paul Barritt played the Thaïs Méditation solo with sweetness and affection, too.

Noah Stewart began with Recondita Armonia from Tosca, by Puccini, sung in fine style, and ‘Una furtiva lacrima’ from L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) had a well-projected ending – this guy is the real deal when it comes to Romantic tenors, and the audience loved his Nessun Dorma.

Sarah Fox’s first solo was ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontano’ from Catalani’s La Wally, one of those excerpts that are almost the only part of a once-successful opera to survive. It showed off her excellent control of a long melodic line, while Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt was a charmer, and the Song to the Moon from Rusalka equaled it.

Together they sailed through duets from Gounod’s Faust, Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz and ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La Bohème (delicately ending with two top Cs, floated from off-stage), and rewarded their hearers’ enthusiastic acclaim with the Brindisi from La Traviata.

Real opera lovers go to see operas, rather than listening to excerpts in a concert hall, but it was a relaxing night for tune lovers – and we’re all those at heart.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Review of Halle concert with Ryan Wigglesworth

There’s nothing like a concert mainly on the theme of death to brighten a cold, wet February evening in Manchester.

But principal guest conductor Ryan Wigglesworth’s programme with the Hallé was worth braving the elements for – and the musical reflections on departure and its obsequies proved rewarding, too. Perhaps I’m being overly lugubrious to characterize Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet score as being about death, but the eponymous sad little puppet in the fairground show does end as a victim of murder by another puppet, and (as you’ll know if you’ve seen the ballet performed) the ending – included in most concert performances now – shows a very corporeal appearance of his cheeky spirit ascending to find its heavenly reward.

It’s a gloriously colourful piece of writing, and Ryan Wigglesworth expounded the score from the outset with meticulous care and vivid and exhilarating sounds. It wasn’t a romp through a standard repertoire piece with no subtlety, either – Katherine Baker’s solo flute playing was quite magical, and the solo trumpet of Gareth Small later on was quite enchanting. Some of the melody lines occasionally were hidden in the richness of the instrumentation we were urged to enjoy, but that was only on a few occasions.

Another kind of after-death experience was described in the piece before, Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder – about a heaven for animals as described in the opera it’s taken from. It was notable mainly for the virtuosity of the percussion used to set its various celestial scenes.

The highspot of the concert came after the interval, when bass singer Brindley Sherratt was soloist for Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, in Shostakovich’s orchestral version. Brindley Sherratt has a wonderfully rich timbre for Russian music, varying from the finely-judged morendo at the close of the first song (Lullaby) to the shock of death’s final greedy clutch of a poor girl in the second (Serenade), and with much more in imaginative presentation besides. Ryan Wigglesworth realized the vivid scoring and swinging rhythms here and in Trepak and The Field Marshal with great skill.

And they followed that with Mahler’s Totenfeier – or the first draft of his ‘Resurrection’ symphony’s first movement, if you prefer to think of it that way. This is the funeral march, though. No heaven-storming paean of choral confidence in an after-life is heard … though the gently rising major theme that way well signify at least a hope of consolation is repeatedly present, and all the more significant for being the only positive expression to pierce the grimness. The full 50-strings Hallé sound was particularly opulent by this time and proved a benediction in itself.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

CDs of my year: a personal selection

Here’s a personal set of CD reviews for Christmas – maybe these could help solve your present problems …

Wagner: Parsifal (soloists, Hallé Orchestra, Royal Opera Chorus, Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLD 7539 , 2CDs)
This is a BBC recording of the complete Parsifal given by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé at the London Proms last year, issued on the Hallé label as a 70th birthday present for Sir Mark in June this year. It sounds remarkably well, considering the Royal Albert Hall was the ‘studio’, and the performance itself is superb in every respect. Personally I find the work something of an acquired taste, but it’s clear that Si Mark has acquired it, and he sustains the atmosphere of rapt contemplation throughout (he calls it a ‘one-shirt work’ in contrast to the other Wagner music dramas for which at least two shirts’ worth of perspiration is needed). If you can handle hearing all those Dresden Amens (a Lead-Kindly-Leitmotif, if ever there was one), then this is for you, too.

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies nos. 4 and 6 (Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLL 7547)
Sir Mark and the Halle have already recorded VW’s symphonies 1, 2, 5 and 8 to considerable acclaim, and this is an equally notable document. The works are each in their own way ‘war’ symphonies, the fourth dissonantly angry and full of foreboding (though with beautiful melody, too), the sixth seen by many as post-war reaction to the horror of Hiroshima, with its long, almost featureless and eery finale. Sir Mark always brings freshness and clarity to his music, and this is no exception.

Scriabin: Symphony no. 2; Piano concerto (Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein, conducted by Vasily Petrenko: LAWO Classics  LWC1139)
Scriabin’s earlier works are being championed by Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, and offer a few surprises to the listener who (like most of us) does not know them as regular concert repertoire. They’re closer in style to the high Romantic vein of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov than Scriabin’s most visionary, later music, which makes them a rewarding experience in the hands of such a great-sounding orchestra as this and its highly gifted conductor – also music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. On the other hand, they’re somewhat uneven, the major example of this being the finale of the second symphony, where after a seriously discursive first two movements (like a vast slow introduction and allegro), a beautiful Andante and a lively scherzo, descends into mere vainglorious posturing where something much weightier is needed. But well worth hearing for the beauties along the way. 

‘Suites and Fantasies’, various composers (Joo Yeon Sir, violin, Irina Andrievsky, piano: Rubicon RCD1003)
As debut discs by solo violinists go, this is an exceptionally rewarding and entertaining one. Joo Yeon Sir’s technique is fabulous, and she is recorded by Andrew Keener and produced by Matthew Cosgrove – both signs of superb quality. She and Irina Andrievsky play the charming pastiche (or is it?) Suite in Old Style by Schnittke, Falla’s Suite Popular Española, Britten’s youthfully spiky Suite for Violin and Piano op. 3, Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and Frolov’s Concert Fantasy on themes from ‘Porgy and Bess’ – what’s not to like? Highly recommended.

‘The Silver Stars at Play’, contemporary Christmas carols (Kantos Chamber Choir, directed by Elspeth Slorach: Prima Facie PFCD075)
A great idea to fill a CD with new, or mainly new, settings of Christmas music, sung by Kantos, the choir of emerging professional singers of the north west, conducted by their director Elspeth Slorach. There are many little gems here (though, as with any collection of such a kind, the quality of the material varies), among them Paul Ayres’ Hodie Christus natus est, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s This Time is born a Child, Andrew Cusworth’s Of a Rose, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Child of the Manger, Andrew Mayes’ Christmas Music and Mark Hewitt’s Silent Night setting – and the title piece, by Colin Hand.

Adam Gorb: Dancing in the Ghetto and other works (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic 10/10 Ensemble, conducted by Clark Rundell; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by Mark Heron and Timothy Reynish; Manchester Camerata, conducted by Mark Heron: Prima Facie PFCD047)
This collection of recent works for large ensembles by the Royal Northern College of Music’s head of the school of composition – whose highly crafted writing I always find stimulating and usually very enjoyable – has two pieces with the kind of over-the-top, klezmer-influenced, knees-up dance rhythms he’s so good at (Dancing in the Ghetto and Weimar), along with his Symphony no. 1 in C, which is light-hearted, a little bit referential and enormous fun, and Serenade for Spring, which does exactly what it says on the tin. The last piece, Love Transforming, is a long, slow, deeply felt single movement written for Timothy Reynish’s 75th birthday concert and a very different kind of music, but equally intense. I was there for the concert when it was unveiled, and though the recording cannot capture the spatial effects it creates alongside exploring fascinating timbres, I’ll stick to my verdict then that it is ‘both evocative and a model of how to write clearly and imaginatively for unusual textures’.

Anthony Gilbert: ‘Travelling with Time’, recent music on historical themes (various performers: Prima Facie PFCD041)
A collection of pieces written over the past 30 years by Adam Gorb’s predecessor at the RNCM, Anthony Gilbert, this links them together by imagining a journey through history from the 9th century to the 20th, with music for voice, instruments, cello, piano, string quartet and string orchestra. The stand-out for me is Another Dream Carousel, an evocation of Viennese life prior to the Nazis’ horrors – I admired the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s playing of this when it was new in 2000 and it’s good to have it on this disc.