Saturday, 2 February 2019

Review of St Petersburg Philharmonic, Bridgewater Hall

St Petersburg Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky, Freddy Kempf, Bridgewater Hall

Vassily Sinaisky (left) and Freddy Kempf

The St Petersburgers have been frequent and welcome visitors to Manchester over the years, and on Friday (because of the illness of Yuri Temirkanov) they were conducted by another old friend, Vassily Sinaisky.

His performances with the BBC Philharmonic, as principal guest conductor (he’s now Conductor Emeritus), have been among the most exciting of their time – and it’s fair to say that he’s one of Russia’s greatest living musicians.

So all the signs were good for the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s Manchester stop on their intensive UK tour, particularly with Freddy Kempf as piano soloist. The programme was changed to include Rachmaninov’s Piano concerto no. 2 instead of Prokoviev’s first, making it an even more enticing evening out on a cold winter’s night.

The orchestra has a sound that’s all its own – it would not be a novel point to emphasize that. For one thing, at full strength it fields more string players than any other orchestra we hear regularly here (10 double basses, and when they and their cellist colleagues dig in there’s a near-thunderous rumble of sound). Everyone delivers tone, sometimes at the expense of precision of ensemble, but it’s a thing to wonder at. I hope it’s not carping to say that this time there wasn’t quite the sleekness we’ve heard in the past, but most of their wind principals play like star soloists.

They cut the strings down for Prokoviev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony (no. 1) – only 50 of them! That’s not a ‘classical’ sound as we understand it today: no doubt the neat and tidy style considered appropriate for true classical music in Europe these days isn’t part of their tradition … and tradition is what you pay for with the St Petersburg Philharmonic.

This was very close to the way most orchestras played Haydn before 1960 – smooth and suave, with detached articulations exaggerated into spiccati. The Larghetto was ethereal and Romantic, like a number from a ballet score, and the Gavotte only a dance if you imagine people doing it in rubber boots. But the finale went off with a flourish at breakneck speed.

The highspot of the concert turned out to be Freddy Kempf’s ‘Brief Encounter’ Rachmaninov concerto – in which he was accompanied with studiousness and sympathy by Sinaisky. He put a clear personal perspective on the old warhorse, and played its glittering note-cascades with staggering clarity. Self-assertive – yes, but in partnership with an orchestra that’s pretty assertive itself, and both he and they caressed the melodic lines with leisured, song-like phrasing. And he devoured the virtuosic cadenza-style passages like food to a starving man, while the orchestra completed their assignment in magnificent style in the last big tune.

Full forces were on board for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5. Sinaisky takes the instruction to play con anima very seriously, and that soon turns to near-fury, the last reprise of the opening movement’s main theme punched out heroically. The Andante was full of emotional power, with an extra electric charge given to the string repeat of the horn’s opening solo, and the waltz flowed merrily along, Sinaisky fastidiously balancing tunes and counter-melodies in the texture.

He made the finale fast and furious, and the anthemic coda a victorious march with no vainglory. It certainly lifted the spirits of the Manchester crowd.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

The best performances of 2018

So what were the stand-out performances of 2018 in Manchester and the North West? Here’s a personal selection.

Buxton Festival provided some of the best experiences in opera – their production of Verdi’s early opera, Alzira, was the third to be directed for them by Elisha Moshinsky and proved a fascination, with a concision of construction and kaleidoscopic variety of mood almost akin to fast-cut movie direction. There were some thundering good tunes plus shock-horror moments from Verdi, and Stephen Barlow conducted it as his swan song, operatically, for the festival, as he left its artistic directorship this year.

Opera della Luna provided comic balance to that with a great modernization of The Daughter of the Regiment (Donizetti). Who would have thought it would translate to the world of a desert-based Harley-riding biker gang in California, USA? They had a tenor with all the top Cs, too, in Jesús Álvarez.

And the festival offering from early music specialists La Serenissima was Tisbe – the story we know better from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Pyramus and Thisbe – by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello. It was a most lamentable comedy … or should that be comical lament … in Mark Burns’ production, full of inventiveness and humour.

That’s not to discount the sheer heavyweight brilliance of Opera North. New productions that came our way this year included one of Un Ballo in Maschera (Verdi), where Tim Albery’s direction let the music do the histrionics (and it did under Richard Farnes’ baton), and a new Tosca (Puccini), where Giselle Allen made the heroine both an extrovert and insecure beneath it – so her jealousy was a weakness and fully part of her personality – in masterly style.

I should also mention Clonter Opera’s La Bohème, with its very talented young stars-in-the-making and a clever production by Harry Fehr; the Royal Northern College of Music’s Hansel and Gretel, in which designer Yannis Thavoris achieved several remarkable coups de theatre; and the premiere of Adam Gorb’s outstanding theatre work, The Path to Heaven, with libretto by Ben Kaye, a kind of opera documentary on true stories from the Holocaust.

This was the year in which the BBC Philharmonic said goodbye to one chief conductor – Juanjo Mena – with a fiesta of Spanish music, and introduced us to his successor – Omer Meir Welber (albeit that he doesn’t start officially until next summer) – with an hour of Wagner in October.

The Philharmonic’s spring programmes included the world premiere of Mark Simpson’s new Cello concerto, played by Leonard Elschenbroich with skill and passion under the baton of Clemens Schuld, a work I think may find a permanent niche.

And there were two exciting events in two days at the still-new Stoller Hall in Chetham’s School of Music, as contemporary music group Psappha and the more middle-of-the-road Northern Chamber Orchestra each opened their autumn season quite memorably: in Psappha’s case with Kurtág’s Scenes from a Novel, performed by Gillian Keith with film of dancer Rosanna Reberio, making it as much music theatre as concert; and in the NCO’s case with Freddy Kempf playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3, which lit up the evening.

Three other concerts made 2018 a special year for me: Manchester Collective’s June outing at the Stoller Hall, which included Kurtag, Cage, Prokoviev, Janáček, Pärt and Messiaen and showed how to do imaginative programming and advocacy for the unusual combined with top quality musicianship; the lively, community-linked Manchester Peace Song Cycle, heard at the RNCM and written by a team of women composers inspired by Caroline Clegg to tell the story of Heaton Park in war and peace; and English Touring Opera’s St Matthew Passion at the Stoller Hall – not strictly an opera performance but not merely a concert one either, and in conception and execution completely absorbing and moving.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

My best CDs of 2018

Still looking for a Christmas present for the music lover in your life? Here are a few CD recordings that came my way this year and which I can heartily recommend:

Wagner: Das Rheingold (Soloists, Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLD 7549, 3 CDs).

Issued earlier this year, the recording of Sir Mark and the Hallé’s Bridgewater Hall performance from late 2016 is the third in their complete Ring cycle – Siegfried was performed and recorded in June, so the whole set is now in the can.

I was in the hall that November night and I can tell you it was fantastic. It was a magisterial account of the score – done in one continuous take of two-and-three-quarter hours – with some beautifully characterised accounts of individual roles, opulent orchestral sound, smoothness and precision from the strings led by Lyn Fletcher, and resplendent brass.

(There was much more to it than that, as this performance was effectively semi-staged, but only those who were there will have had its benefit – never mind: the sound alone is brilliant). The line-up was enviable and full of character: Sarah Tynan, Madeleine Shaw and Leah Marian-Jones as the Rhinemaidens, Samuel Youn as Alberich, Iain Paterson as Wotan (interestingly self-aware at first, but growing in grandeur), a regal Susan Bickley as Fricka, Reinhard Hagen an appealingly naïve Fasolt and Clive Bayley his meaner, nastier brother, Will Hartmann an intriguing, near-lyrical Loge, and Susanne Resmark almost other-worldly in the richness and fullness of her Erda, among them.

Loder: Raymond and Agnes (Soloists, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Richard Bonynge: Retrospect Opera RO005, 2 CDs).

I wrote about this recording when it appeared in August, and it should be a must for all students of Manchester’s musical history and our English operatic past. The Theatre Royal in Peter Street – long closed for stage performances – was for many years the city’s home for top-class drama and opera, and in 1854 Charles Hallé collaborated with the composer and conductor Edward Loder on one of the most ambitious opera seasons the city has ever known, before or since. They gathered a company of top international operatic singers, and Loder brought to completion the opera that has since been described as his ‘masterpiece’ – Raymond and Agnes. It’s a Romantic work in ‘gothic’ style, and Loder thought he was writing for soloists of exceptional gifts (sadly, its premiere was delayed until summer 1855, and a much weaker cast was then the best available).

But Raymond and Agnes is still the only serious opera of real merit ever to have been composed, rehearsed and premiered in the North West of England, and Loder at his best is a very good dramatic composer indeed. This complete recording is of the later London version – the only one whose score survives – but there’s some remarkable music in it.

Elgar: The Wand of Youth suites, Salut D’Amour, Nursery Suite, Chanson de Nuit (Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLL 7548).

This is a little gem of a disc. The pieces are Elgar in light-weight mood, but often with touches of the depth and imagination found in his bigger, more serious music, and in The Wand of Youth suites, and even the Nursery Suite, you hear echoes of the atmospheres of some of the Enigma Variations, and other works. The Hallé play superbly and charmingly, with Sir Mark Elder adept at drawing every beauty from the scores, and you couldn’t look for anything better for some relaxed post-Christmas enjoyment.

Alan Rawsthorne: Woodwind concertos and chamber works (Linda Merrick, Jill Crowther, Manchester Sinfonia conducted by Richard Howarth, English Northern Philharmonia conducted by Alan Cuckston; Joseph Spooner, David Owen Norris and others, Prima Facie PFCD053).

For students of Manchester’s musical heritage (and all Haslingden-izens, where the birthplace of Alan Rawsthorne is marked by a blue plaque), this collection is a must. Part of it is a re-issue from an earlier ASC collection – the Oboe Concerto, Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello, and Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio – and the first of those (written in 1947) is a lovely work (originally premiered by Evelyn Rothwell with the Hallé). The bonus now is the Clarinet Concerto, played by RNCM principal Linda Merrick, which is a pre-war composition and angst-ridden, as much of that era’s music was. Its manuscript is in the RNCM library, and there are two possible endings, as the composer recorded an alternative version to his original (with Thea King) that sounds much better and has been reconstructed: here, thanks to the wonders of technology, you can choose which you prefer. There’s also the Cello Sonata of 1948, one of his greatest pieces, and a setting of Brother James’s Air, with which it has some thematic connections, plus a two-recorders-and-lute tune written for an RSC production of Hamlet.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Review of English Touring Opera's St Matthew Passion at the Stoller Hall

It’s a truism to say that the St Matthew Passion is the opera Bach never wrote. But it’s still a work designed for a liturgical setting (‘site-specific’, if you like), with a strong community aspect to it.

So how could English Touring Opera translate that into today’s conditions, using the dramatic gifts of their stage-trained singers? Their concept is so brilliant that you wonder why everyone else doesn’t do the same – perhaps in future others will take some leaves from their book, at least.

They’re touring it with The Old Street Band – using properly authentic Baroque instruments and playing styles – but collaborating with local groups in each venue they visit. In Manchester they enlisted Chetham’s Chamber Choir and choristers from Manchester Cathedral, for this performance at the Stoller Hall in Chetham’s School of Music.

That’s the community aspect built in, for a start. (Manchester used to have a fine tradition of this sort, with collaborative performances of oratorio every year at Christmas and Easter in the Free Trade Hall, separate from the Hallé or other concert series, until relatively late in the 19th century). It also works on a national level, as the chorales are sung in English (the rest’s in the original German), in translations by a galaxy of names including James Conway, Roger Wright, Rowan Williams, Alan Rusbridger and Lucy Winkett).

But there’s more to it than that. The work is effectively semi-staged, with some soloists allocated clearly recognizable roles (Judas, Peter, Pilate and so on), others sharing roles from the original named ones (the Evangelist, and Jesus – who is, quite daringly but I think completely justifiedly, sung by bass and female alto, and sometimes the two in unison), and all moving around the stage (and to some extent the auditorium) to lend theatricality to the story. At times, band members join in the movement, too, and all watch everything that happens – there’s a marvellous sense of us all being in this together, celebrating and re-enacting the Gospel story.

I found it incredibly moving. Not just because of the immediacy of the realization – conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny gets through most movements at quite a lick, and the recitative is quick-fire, as in present-day baroque opera – but because of the sense of the timelessness of J S Bach’s testimony of faith. ‘He being dead yet speaketh’ – what a legacy to have created.

There are what some would consider compromises in the integrity of the performance – re-allocation of voice pitches, the children singing their chorales as soprano line only – but you can’t help thinking Bach would have adapted his ends to his means today if he were here. The soloists, including Katie Bray, Richard Dowling, Susanna Fairbairn, John-Colin Gyeantey, Frederick Long, Andrew Slater, Benjamin Williamson, were magnificent.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Review of the The Manchester Peace Song Cycle at the RNCM

‘These Days – The Manchester Peace Song Cycle’, to give it its full name – was a staged song cycle about Heaton Hall and particularly its story in wartime, performed as a special private event last Sunday in the hall itself and getting its official world premiere last night at the Royal Northern College of Music.

It’s remarkable example of collaboration, as perhaps only Manchester can do it, inspired and realized by Caroline Clegg and her Feelgood Theatre Productions company, who have a role all their own in the present re-enlivening of the hall as a piece of our city’s heritage.

There are nine composers (all women), and the texts are nearly all by Tony Walsh. The performers included children from Cheetwood Community Primary School and the Hallé Youth Training Choir, with soprano Jenny Carson, tenor Christopher Littlewood and Joseph Jordan as actor and sometime narrator, and a five-piece instrumental ensemble.

It was presented with some superbly researched visual imagery projected above the performance space, and with actor and musicians all in costume and the children’s choirs – excellently prepared and directed, and conducted by Thomas D Hopkinson – fully using the auditorium’s capacities, it made for an absorbing and very moving experience.

On one level it was a good piece of story-telling, with a linking thread being the two great sculpted lions which lie recumbent outside the back of the hall’s central block – just think what they have seen, we’re invited to imagine as events from the past are re-enacted before us. The children sing about them (‘You can even ride the lions if you dare’), and they come to life near the beginning, as Amelia and Arthur, with shaggy-collared coats and represented by the two singers. A lyric, ‘These Days’, by Tony Walsh, recurs to bring the survey of their memories to a thoughtful close.

I was particularly interested in the new songs which are at its musical core. Writing songs is rarely considered the peak of composerly skill in today’s ‘classical’ circles, though in the rest of the universe the word ‘music’ seems to be equated almost totally with recorded song. These miniatures showed that in Manchester at least we have some real talent for song creation among the other skills expected of trained practitioners.

Lead composer is Nicola LeFanu, and several of the children’s songs are her work: well judged to fit the two choruses, both in their level of sophistication and technically, with the Hallé youngsters rising to considerable challenges.

Ailís Ní Ríain has written a series of cello solos which accompany narrative, there are trumpet motifs by Freya Ireland, while Emily Howard’s music for The Malaya Emergency, from much nearer the present and accompanying archive film, had the unenviable task of reflecting a particularly gruesome description of killing in combat. The other songs are by Anna Appleby, Lizzy Gür, Lucy Hale, Emily Howard, Freya Ireeland, Grace Evangeline Mason and Carmel Smickersgill.

Lizzy Gur’s Willy Grimshaw’s ’Orn (about the public demonstration of the gramophone by William Grimshaw in Heaton Park in 1909) was a lot of fun with some mad ragtime in its instrumentals, and Carmel Smickersgill’s Take Me was a mock recruiting song from the First World War part of the park’s history, full of sadness and one that changed the atmosphere of the entire show. Freya Ireland’s The Lucky Ones (about the RAF training of the Second World War) had a fascinating mini-ensemble sound – a lot from a little.

But the ones I found most powerful were Lucy Hale’s Kisses, Crosses, Losses, a slow, keening lament that continued the story of the 1914-18 tragedy, Anna Appleby’s Disabled, an unaccompanied setting of Wilfred Owen that formed a pivotal point in the evening, and Grace Evangeline Mason’s Lifted, an interlude of simple innocence that did what the title said, with eloquent melody, as a child describes the joy of solitude and the open freedom of the park. That was one that stayed with me.

The Manchester Peace Song Cycle - Cheetwood Community Primary School

The Manchester Peace Song Cycle - Hallé Youth Training Choir and soloists

Monday, 19 November 2018

Review of Manchester Collective's Pierrot Lunaire at the RNCM

On paper, the big attraction of Manchester Collective’s concert at the Royal Northern College of Music on Friday was a chance to hear the new English translation by David Pountney of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire of 1912.

In practice that was not the main point of the performance, as the words were barely audible. I don’t think that was entirely down to soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, who was clearly doing her best.

When Elizabeth Alker, with help (mainly) from conductor Tim Burke, was explaining the nature of the piece in the first part of the evening, she (and he, and others) used microphones, the better to be heard in the acoustically generous RNCM concert hall. When it came to the vocal role in the performance itself, which followed as part two, Lotte Betts-Dean was not mic’d. But ‘Sprechstimme’ (pitch-specified speaking voice) has surely got to be treated as speech in a situation where ordinary speech needs it, so I wondered why.

It might as well have been in German, really, but that didn’t defeat the object of the performance, which was to present the song cycle (21 of them) as a one-woman scena – directed by Emma Doherty and with design by Nate Gibson (mainly a bed from which the soloist gets up, walks around and snuggles into, though the instrumentalists interact with her, too, from time to time). The concept was explained in advance, so the words didn’t matter more than in any other piece of Regietheater, and we were assured it was all based on the texts.

We’re seeing someone with an identity disorder, with manic and depressive episodes, projecting herself into imaginary characters, and finally seeking a kind of reconciliation of her own contrasting personality traits (all explained in the first, music-appreciation-class, part). That seems a pretty smart way of presenting a set of poems translated from the original French, with the overall title of ‘Moonstruck Pierrot’, that don’t make a lot of literal sense beyond telling us about an artist’s (ie a Pierrot’s) life and fantasies.

As every Bertie Wooster fan knows, going to a fancy dress party in a Pierrot costume was the height of boring conformism by around 10 years later. Entire concert parties would perform as Pierrots – so the idea of the sad clown had taken some root.

Here it was all highly accomplished musically, and credit should be given to each performer of the ensemble (led by Rakhi Singh, with unidentified colleagues) as well as Lotte Betts-Dean. And well done the Collective for putting considerable resources into an imaginative and theatrically presented realization of an iconic score.

What’s it iconic of? Well, Arnold Schoenberg, who (whatever else he did for music) should probably be credited with changing the craft of composer from being something in the practical arts continuum to that of the academic, is part of history now. I’m glad these performers thought he was someone you could laugh at, rather than being po-faced about.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Review of Halle concert conducted by Kazushi Ono, with Paul Lewis

Halle Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall

Kazushi Ono, conductor of the Hallé’s first Thursday series concert of the month, was a newcomer to me. He’s already held the principal conductor’s job at the Lyons opera – one of Kent Nagano’s roles in times past – and is clearly highly regarded in his native Japan.

It looks as if he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. We had Schubert and Beethoven first: in both cases with string forces where first and second violins balanced one another in numbers, and – especially in Beethoven’s Piano concerto no. 2, where the total strings were fewer than 40 – light enough in the lower end of the spectrum to ensure a neat, clean, energetic sound.

Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture (not actually written for the Rosamunde play to which he supplied highly familiar incidental music, but never mind) was beautifully paced and unfolded in its satisfyingly conventional shape. Maybe the strings could have been a tad more precise in following his beat at first, but that issue never raised its head again.

Soloist for the Beethoven concerto was Paul Lewis – a master of his craft who needs no introduction. He is poised, delightful in articulation, ready to highlight the touches of whimsy (such as the intriguing tum-ti-tum decorations of the first movement’s main theme, played with charming insouciance) and the moments of passion (such as the little explosion in the solo part towards the end of the second movement), and his playing of that slow movement was simple and unashamedly lyrical but never without its gentle forward momentum.

That Adagio became the spiritual highspot of his interpretation, and with Kazushi Ono’s help sustained its relaxed sense of reverie from beginning to end. The finale had its full quota of high spirits including teasing nuances from Paul Lewis whenever he had the chance to include them.

The second part of the concert was very different – the orchestra increased to full strings strength and all the required wind and percussion, for one thing – presenting Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10. It’s almost a calling card for the Hallé: they recorded it for Skrowaczewski and have played it wonderfully for Sir Mark Elder. The opening clarinet solo has sounded amazing in the past but surely never as gentle and distant a voice as it became in the hands of Sergio Castelló Lopez – and this was a performance in which all the solo roles were constantly eloquent, among them a characterful reading of the principal bassoon role from guest Paul Boyes and gorgeous oboe playing from Stéphane Rancourt.

I admired the swaying but bleakly pessimistic mood Kazushi Ono obtained in the third main theme of the first movement, and the hurtling juggernaut he initiated in the second. Solos were again most distinguished in the slow movement, golden horn calls heralding the dawn of optimism.

The finale, as always, leaves you wondering whether you have quite ‘got it’. Shostakovich in exuberant voice is always a hair’s breadth away from Shostakovich the satirist or the clown, and Ono’s tempo for the jollifications seemed as energetic as the one he chose for the grim second movement. Precision in the playing – the orchestra led by Lyn Fletcher – was unimpeachable, but was it all a shade too much for sincerity to come through? The reception showed that the listeners loved it.

Kazushi Ono (credit Miyoshi Eisuke)

Paul Lewis (credit Sara Porter)