Friday, 3 May 2019

Rveiew of Manchester Camerata, Takács-Nagy, Bavouzet, Stoller Hall, Chetham’s


There were three fascinating concerts on in Manchester on 2nd May: the BBC Philharmonic, under Martyn Brabbins, performing Tippett, Britten and James MacMillan in the Hallé series at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester Camerata at the Stoller Hall, and contemporary music group Psappha, with music by David T Little, Nigel Osborne, Arnold Schoenberg, Tim Wright and Anthony Burgess, at St Michael’s Ancoats.

I’d have gone to all three if they’d been planned for different days – looks like the Clash Committee was asleep at the wheel …

I chose the Camerata because it was the last of Gábor Takács-Nagy’s conducting commitment in their 2018-19 series, and also marks a new stage in an ambitious recording project, featuring him, the Camerata and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, for Chandos. They’re planning to complete their tally of Mozart piano concertos – some of which have been captured already, based on notable concert performances in Manchester – along with all the opera overtures written by him at the equivalent periods.

I enjoyed the concerts in 2016 and 2017 which have already contributed to this. Bavouzet and Takács-Nagy share an approach to the concertos which is not hidebound by performance practice theory or the demands of authentic-instrument purists – with them it is sheer enjoyment, an almost childlike delight in the possibilities of the music written when Mozart himself was not far off childhood (all the music in this programme was written when he was between 15 and 20 years old, as Takács-Nagy informed us).

Gábor does quite a lot of informing in his concerts, in a way that some find charming, but I do sometimes wish he could make it briefer and better thought-out before he starts the chat-fest. The Camerata could learn from the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s style in this respect.

But the music is the main thing, and, with Caroline Pether leading the band, that was totally beguiling. He finds every chance for ‘echo’ effects – delightfully in the opening of the overture to Il Sogno di Scipione and again in that of Symphony no. 27 (K199) – evokes glorious suavity in his slow movements, finds opportunities for near-Rossinian crescendos sometimes – as in the overture to La Finta Giardiniera – and goes for a romp of a finale whenever he can – as in the Lucio Silla overture.

The symphony, a three-movement one of the kind that’s hardly distinguishable from a divertimento, had more to offer still. Its slow movement was a Romanza, with some mystery and the odd surprise, and its finale came bursting with energy.

And what of the concertos? They played no. 6 (B flat, K238) first, the opening movement and finale each given a downbeat, questioning ending, and Bavouzet contributing unalloyed joys in his melodic articulation, his virtuosity, his touches of whimsy and his stylish cadenzas to every movement. The rondo in particular was a cheerful canter through a bucolic landscape, with flashes of humour.

No. 5 (D major, K175) is much more extrovert in its outer movements, full of ‘sensibility’ in its decorative central one, and in this reading attractively playful, too. Bavouzet had correct cadenzas for the first two movements, but for the last one gave us something almost Lisztian in its bravura and extraordinary excursion into tremolando. He’s always a man of surprises.

                  
Gábor Takács-Nagy, left, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (credit Paul Mitchell)

Saturday, 27 April 2019

CD review: Olivier Latry and the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris


I don’t usually review CDs except at Christmas, but one new release has really caught my imagination. It’s the sound of the grand organ of Notre-Dame de Paris, played by Olivier Latry, captured in January this year.

And its magic, and poignancy, arise from the fact that it’s a sound that probably won’t be available to hear ‘live’ for some time to come.

Reports say that the unique and extraordinary five-manual organ – incorporating pipes from hundreds of years ago but still essentially the greatest Aristide Cavaillé-Coll ever built – was not destroyed by the fire at Easter, but that a lot of dust, and some water, have got in.

It’s a cause for relief that things were no worse, but the two most damaging things for pipe organ mechanisms are, of course, dust and water. Cleaning will no doubt have to be extensive – and there is still the question of how, and for how long, the rebuilding of the cathedral roof will be in progress.

Latry made this CD as one of a series for the adventurous French label La Dolce Volta – it has a whole variety of very personal albums by great artists to offer, particularly pianists and chamber musicians – and called it ‘Bach to the Future’.

It’s his idea of how Bach’s organ music can be made to sound using the resources of the great Cavaillé-Coll instrument. Forget ‘authenticity’ – playing Bach this way is a tradition in itself – Louis Vierne recorded some on this organ back in 1929, and Latry says he thinks of Liszt’s way of transcribing him, too.

The big blockbuster pieces sound quite overwhelming here: listen to the opening of the great G minor Fantasia and Fugue, or the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, for instance. But there are others in which he exploits different aspects of the instrument: the gentle string sounds in the Herzlich tut mich verlangen (‘Passion chorale’) prelude, or the soulful prelude on Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott. The Notre-Dame organ even has a set of chimes that play on the pedals, and so he ding-dongs his way through In Dir ist Freude from the Orgelbüchlein.

For the three-movement G major Piece d’Orgue he finds a set of French plein-jeu and grands-jeux sounds (and makes no apologies for a long and huge crescendo in the middle section), and in the Ricercare a 6 from The Musical Offering he solos some of the lines on particular manuals. The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is a tremendous essay in build-ups.

In a way he’s having fun – most of these pieces are ones that organists love to play and organ music fans love to hear, and they sound terrific played on almost anything, but even more so on the great music machine of M. Cavaillé-Coll. 
The presentation of the album is luxurious, with its own little box and a lavishly illustrated booklet.


I don’t usually review CDs except at Christmas, but one new release has really caught my imagination. It’s the sound of the grand organ of Notre-Dame de Paris, played by Olivier Latry, captured in January this year.
And its magic, and poignancy, arise from the fact that it’s a sound that probably won’t be available to hear ‘live’ for some time to come.
Reports say that the unique and extraordinary five-manual organ – incorporating pipes from hundreds of years ago but still essentially the greatest Aristide Cavaillé-Coll ever built – was not destroyed by the fire at Easter, but that a lot of dust, and some water, have got in.
It’s a cause for relief that things were no worse, but the two most damaging things for pipe organ mechanisms are, of course, dust and water. Cleaning will no doubt have to be extensive – and there is still the question of how, and for how long, the rebuilding of the cathedral roof will be in progress.
Latry made this CD as one of a series for the adventurous French label La Dolce Volta – it has a whole variety of very personal albums by great artists to offer, particularly pianists and chamber musicians – and called it ‘Bach to the Future’.
It’s his idea of how Bach’s organ music can be made to sound using the resources of the great Cavaillé-Coll instrument. Forget ‘authenticity’ – playing Bach this way is a tradition in itself – Louis Vierne recorded some on this organ back in 1929, and Latry says he thinks of Liszt’s way of transcribing him, too.
The big blockbuster pieces sound quite overwhelming here: listen to the opening of the great G minor Fantasia and Fugue, or the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, for instance. But there are others in which he exploits different aspects of the instrument: the gentle string sounds in the Herzlich tut mich verlangen (‘Passion chorale’) prelude, or the soulful prelude on Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott. The Notre-Dame organ even has a set of chimes that play on the pedals, and so he ding-dongs his way through In Dir ist Freude from the Orgelbüchlein.
For the three-movement G major Piece d’Orgue he finds a set of French plein-jeu and grands-jeux sounds (and makes no apologies for a long and huge crescendo in the middle section), and in the Ricercare a 6 from The Musical Offering he solos some of the lines on particular manuals. The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is a tremendous essay in build-ups.
In a way he’s having fun – most of these pieces are ones that organists love to play and organ music fans love to hear, and they sound terrific played on almost anything, but even more so on the great music machine of M. Cavaillé-Coll. 
The presentation of the album is luxurious, with its own little box and a lavishly illustrated booklet. 
La Dolce Volta say they are planning to donate part of the profits from this CD to the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Bach to the Future: Olivier Latry, Grandes Orgues Cavaillé-Coll de Notre-Dame de Paris (La Dolce Volta LDV 69)

                                        

Olivier Latry at the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review of Hallé Orchestra concert to celebrate Charles Hallé’s 200th birthday, Bridgewater Hall


Jonathon Heyward expertly piloted the orchestra that bears Charles Hallé’s name through the first of its April ‘Opus one’ programmes last night (it’s repeated tonight and on Sunday in Manchester, and on Friday in Blackburn).

Hallé was born 200 years ago this week – we now know that his real birthday was 10th April 2019, though he celebrated it on the 11th, his baptismal day. (I was a bit miffed that someone changed my programme note in this respect to make it inaccurate, but the ‘Timeline’ supplied alongside it, provided on the basis of information I’ve previously compiled for the Hallé memorabilia exhibition now at Central Library here in Manchester, kept the correct date).

Hallé was never really rated as a composer in his own day (he was famous for so much else!), but he did publish a number of piano pieces of his own creation, and for this week’s concerts his orchestra is playing a compilation and orchestration based on two of them by Christoph Wagner, recently composer-in-residence at Hagen in Germany, Hallé’s birthplace.

This was a beautiful example of re-animation in its own right. Wagner has re-written the figuration in Hallé’s Souvenir to make it more orchestral in concept – and introduced some telling imitation and counter-melody, too – with the result that you feel you’re hearing an unknown piece of Mendelssohn for its brief duration. It begins in A minor but changes to major at the end, making a perfect lead-in to Hallé’s Scherzo in D, his one published piece of ‘heavyweight’ piano writing.

Here it is Beethoven we feel we’re hearing, and we should hardly be surprised, as Hallé championed Beethoven’s works – piano and orchestral – all his life. Again Christoph Wagner imaginatively and subtly creates something multi-coloured and varied from Hallé’s piano textures, with its own moments of suspense and drama. Jonathon Heyward caught the spirit of it immediately and very effectively.

Of course that was not all this concert had to offer. It began with real Beethoven, the Leonora no. 3 overture, played with the full body of strings (but old-style timps) and brassy and full of vivid contrast in its livelier moments.

Then the orchestra was pared severely down for Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 17 K453 – two sets of eight violinists, six violas, four celli and three bassi. That was an excellent decision, giving soloist Heejae Kim, winner of the 2015 Terence Judd Prize, the chance to deliver the solo with delicacy, style and charm. Jonathon Heyward found some interesting robustness in the ritornello at the start of the slow movement – and every bit of whimsy in what followed – and I loved the delightful clipped articulation in the orchestra in the finale, counterbalancing the equally dainty piano performance.

Heejae Kim returned with a brief encore – Sibelius’s Le Sapin (The Spruce) – providing a forward glimpse towards the end of the concert.

This was great Sibelius – Symphony no. 5. Heyward and the Hallé gave us in effect a two-movement work, the Andante segue-ing into the finale to balance the double introduction-scherzo structure of the first movement. There were brilliant colours (some guesting woodwind players doing their best to make an impact) and a great sense of momentum allied to finely controlled tempo transitions, with assured phrasing and tenderness in the slow movement and a sense of inescapable logic in the progression of pregnant dissonances to final resolution at the end.

Jonathon Heyward (credit Jeremy Ayres Fischer)

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Review of RNCM's The Pilgrim's Progress


The Royal Northern College has come up with a fine piece of theatre with this year’s spring opera. They last did Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress 27 years ago, and I saw it then, but it’s a great piece for a conservatoire to tackle, with multiple supporting roles as well as the main one of the title, and some excellent opportunities for gifted performers to shine in them.

This production has all that – particularly in the ‘Vanity Fair’ scene that opens the second act – but it has much, much more. The story has been re-interpreted as an allegory of a soldier’s life from the First World War – a soldier who is shell-shocked and has to battle with his memories of the horror as much as the hypocrisy and opprobrium of those back home, but triumphs in the end.

It works remarkably well, and Jonathan Cocker’s concept and direction are inspired. He’s helped by a haunting single-set design concept from Bob Bailey (the vivid period costumes are his as well) in which the foxhole in the trenches of the opening transforms to a field hospital, a town in Blighty or the long hard, road to Zion as required.

It could be Vaughan Williams’ own memories of the Great War brought to life: he served as a medic after volunteering in early middle age, and chose the story himself for what many consider his best full-length opera, working on it for years before its post-Second-World War premiere. In this production the angels are nurses and those who point the way to salvation are doctors and their aides; Pilgrim’s armour is a tweed suit as he seeks rehabilitation, Vanity Fair is a gathering of grotesques beneath the flags of patriotism, and Mr and Madam By-Ends are the callous wealthy.

The battle with Apollyon presents the dragon as a human phalanx but looking horribly like a huge artillery piece, and the dead emerge from the set to haunt the hero even while his soldier mates wander fearfully in the war-torn landscape.

It’s also excellently sung. The RNCM seems to have a glut of extremely good male singers at the moment, and there are many different chances for individuals to shine. I saw baritone Edward Robinson in the title role and have nothing but praise for his performance, and likewise with Liam Mcnally’s appearance as the writer in the prologue and epilogue.

William Kyle was powerful as the Herald (here a Mr Mayor back home); Kamil Bien impressed with a mature tenor timbre in his roles as Interpreter (in this case a medic) and Messenger in the wartime hospital scenes; Steffan Owen stood out for his singing and his characterization as Lord Hate-Good (now, with the text as cue, a be-wigged and merciless judge).

There were excellent performances, too, from Stephanie Poropat, Lucy Vallis and Rhiannon Doogan is the Shining Ones, Stephanie Maitland as Madam By-Ends (with Ryan Davies as Mr), and a whole variety of roles in Vanity Fair.

David Parry pilots it all with a sure hand in the pit, and the chorus singing – they’re trained by Kevin Thraves – is magnificent.


Edward Robinson as the Pilgrim - picture: Robert Workman

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's Elizabeth I

England’s woman leader is in power, but only just. Surrounded by plotters and schemers, with a female rival from Scotland attracting growing support, she sees her only way as being unbending – any sign of weakness will be an excuse to topple her. But that very rigidity is exploited by supposed friends, whose only real ambition is to take power for themselves. Deceiving and deceived, they profess loyalty while fomenting its opposite. Sounds familiar?
This is the England of Elizabeth I – Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, as Rossini and his librettist saw her. In this version of history, the Earl of Leicester is the good guy, refusing Elizabeth’s amorous advances because he’s already secretly married (and thus incurring her passionate wrath, as his wife is Mathilde, daughter of Mary Queen of Scots). The Duke of Norfolk is a lying toad, trying to manoeuvre Leicester to his death, then, once found out, seeking to encourage popular rebellion against Elizabeth – which Leicester nobly rejects.
So you have four main roles, one of which – Elizabeth – is easily the biggest. You also have – and this is such a surprise that the English surtitles reassure us we have come on the right night about three minutes in – the overture we know as that of The Barber of Seville.
How so? Well, Rossini thought it was so good he named it thrice, and this is the second show he stuck it on, Barber being the third. This one has a certain right to it, though, as a snatch of its final crescendo is worked into the Act One finale, which is another surprise.
It’s a good night in the theatre. Director James Conway presents it in period, with simple sets that evoke its time and place and provide a minimum of structure for scenes that include a throne room and a dungeon – but they’re enough. Rory Beaton’s lighting ekes out any imperfections. Designer Frankie Bradshaw clothes the chorus in black but recognisably Elizabethan garb. (I could see why they hung around in geometrical formats much of the time – court life in those days was a public business, after all. But in the dungeon scene…?)
Mary Plazas is the star. She’s a Buxton favourite already, having brilliantly sung major roles in the festival here in recent years, and again she gives both technical coloratura excellence and lovely tone over a wide tessitura, and also an intelligent and moving characterisation of her role.
Lucy Hall has an important secunda donna part as Mathilde, and she is outstandingly good to hear and well into character, too – the confrontation scene that opens Act Two was remarkably powerful. Luciano Botelho (Leicester) made a fine fist of his heroic role, and John-Colyn Gyeantey, after a rather rough start, warmed into being the nasty Norfolk in time for his best scene, a second confrontation duet.
The ETO chorus again sang magnificently, and John Andrews conducted the score with a sure and imaginative touch. There's a rawness and energy in this early Rossini – voices pitted against screaming piccolo and braying trombone in a way that Verdi was later criticised for – that is genuinely exciting.
Mary Plazas as Elizabeth I. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's Macbeth


The English text of Verdi’s Macbeth would be a gift to any exam-swotter looking for a pass-notes style summary of the plot. It leaves out all subsidiary stuff, focusses on Macbeth and (even more) Lady Macbeth, tells you what they’re each thinking even when Shakespeare doesn’t, and throws in a chorus or two to express the background concepts of a benighted Scotland under Macbeth’s rule and the patriotic spirit of those who finally defeated him.

And some of the best quotes are still there, sounding at least something like the original.

We have translator Andrew Porter to thank for that. Occasionally he lapses into cod-Jacobean language (addressing the dagger in Macbeth’s vision as ‘thou’, for instance), but generally you have the feeling of what a 19th-century Italian operatic writing team made of this, as they would have of any other, source.

English Touring Opera are being quite brave in using English for foreign-language opera these days, when translated surtitles can supply the meaning of any libretto, whatever its original tongue. They even display the English text as it’s sung, which affords us the pleasant game of spotting when the singers make tiny departures from the official version. But I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the modern-dress staging chosen by director James Dacre and designer Frankie Bradshaw for their interpretation. No doubt lounge suits, and trousers with military-ish seam stripes, are relatively cheap to hire from theatrical costumiers, but it all gets a bit incongruous when Macbeth clearly calls for ‘my buckler, sword and dagger’, only to be given a pistol and nothing else.

The single set itself is a kind of concrete bunker, but we never find out why any part of the action is going on there. As it happens, it’s built very much like a Jacobean theatre, with an ‘inner chamber’ behind the main stage area and a gallery above for special moments – which may have been intentional … or may not.

The witches are important in Verdi’s version – they’re a female chorus and should be just as spookily evil as Shakespeare made them. Here they first appear as nuns in nursing aprons rifling the wounded for their possessions – not the kind of conduct you associate with nuns, and the animal entrails they apparently find are not what you would expect either. Was it just the word ‘sisters’ that provoked that? And the military fatigues sported by the chorus at other times would be fair enough, if they didn’t keep waving their AK-47s around as if auditioning for Dad’s Army.

Having said all that, the musical qualities of this ETO production are very high: the chorus sound terrific in Buxton’s Opera House, the words are almost always crystal clear, and the two main characters are well cast. Conductor Gerry Cornelius gets the maximum from a smallish orchestra and realizes many of Verdi’s textures beautifully.

Grant Doyle, as Macbeth, has a very big voice and uses it powerfully. Does his characterization develop in the course of the story (it should)? Perhaps not much, but Madeleine Pierard (Lady Macbeth) is not just the dominant personality from the start, but the dominant voice in every way. Verdi wrote some great histrionic stuff for her role, and she goes to town on it.


Grant Doyle as Macbeth: picture Richard Hubert Smith

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review of Northern Chamber Orchestra and Martin Roscoe

The Northern Chamber Orchestra welcomed Martin Roscoe as piano soloist for its concerts at the weekend, in the Stoller Hall at Chetham’s on Friday night, and the Heritage Centre in Macclesfield on Saturday. I heard the second of those.

It was a kind of celebration of International Women’s Day, as one of the four items on the programme was written by a woman, and another was inspired and popularized by one. That lady was Clara Schumann, muse, sweetheart, wife and eventually widow of Robert Schumann, whose 200th birthday is this year – and the work was his Piano Concerto in A minor.

Before it we heard Gounod’s delicious Petite Symphonie for wind instruments, a delicious bit of Mendelssohniana well chosen to put the NCO’s wind players in the spotlight. They were expertly led by flautist Conrad Marshall, but much of the music’s magic and eloquence comes from the first oboe part, beautifully played by Kenny Sturgeon. In fact the third and fourth movements need soloistic virtues and warmly integrated textures from everyone, and it was a great example of choral-style teamwork all round.

The Schumann concerto is an evergreen, and it was good to hear it in acoustic close-up, as you do in the Heritage Centre’s auditorium. Martin Roscoe never lets his sense of momentum falter, and the Romantic qualities of the first movement were kept under proper restraint, while the ‘grazioso’ of the second was felt from the outset. The finale was a rumbustious (and mainly accurate) romp.

The 20th century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz wrote her Concerto for String Orchestra in 1948, and its three movements give its players plenty of energetic writing to dig into (‘We love it,’ said NCO leader Nicholas Ward in his introduction). To me it’s reminiscent of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra more than anything, but there are some scrunchy multi-voice harmonies which at times seemed to demand a bigger body of players than the NCO is able to provide. The final movement brought quality solos from Nicholas Ward and others.

Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ symphony (no. 35) closed the evening in high spirits. It was a bright and breezy way to say farewell to the orchestra’s general manager of the last few years, Tom Elliott, who’s moving on to pastures new, and its energy, virtuosity, precision and fun epitomized much of what the NCO has always embodied in its playing.

Martin Roscoe and the Northern Chamber Orchestra 
led by Nicholas Ward