Sunday, 19 January 2020

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert 18th January 2020

I doubt there were many listeners for whom the really memorable thing in Saturday’s BBC Philharmonic concert was not The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams’ exquisite little tone poem of English open-air tranquillity.

That its violin solo was played with a kind of pristine purity by Jennifer Pike was part of the joy of it. A lark, after all, just sings: it doesn’t do ‘expression’ or Romantic emotion. And yet the warmth of tone from her D string was a wonder in itself – and the others equally beautiful.

But the piece itself simply grabs you with a few phrases that keep coming again and again: not literal birdsong, but like birdsong in their guileless repetition.

Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry, an English creator’s work around 100 years newer (written in 2012) and already promoted to the BBC’s Ten Pieces orchestral pantheon, shares that characteristic. She’s brilliant at repetitive units (ostinati, I guess) that give you something immediate to recognize and hang on to in the welter of sounds that make up her score. And there’s plenty of information as to what it’s about – she writes of poems describing a voyage at sea (a raging one, at the outset, it seems), and she made a collage picture to describe the same sort of experience of mood swings as she’s illustrating in  her music (a copy for everyone supplied with their programme booklet).

‘Gewaltig viel Noten’, as Josef II once said of another composer’s work. Under Ben Gernon’s direction the Philharmonic worked conscientiously through what was also, to some extent, designed to be a demonstration piece for large orchestra.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was an interesting contrast. It’s also written for a big orchestra to play, and also tells a story – one of the first works that sounds as if it’s written for the theatre but is actually a concert piece. And it’s also trying to uncover aspects of unhappy mental experience. It goes without saying that it was played with vigour and enormous impact, though perhaps there could have been room for some more subtlety in balancing the brass, string and wind cohorts along the way.

Jennifer Pike (picture: Tom Bangbala) and the BBC Philharmonic

Thursday, 19 December 2019

My favourite CDs of 2019

Here are a few CD recordings that came my way this year – a totally personal selection but all really well worth a listen:

Ethel Smyth: Fête Galante; Liza Lehmann: The Happy Prince. Soloists, Lontano Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, and Felicity Lott with Valerie Langfield (Retrospect Opera RO007)

Retrospect Opera are doing remarkable things in recording neglected British works. Here they offer a quality performance of Smyth’s ‘Dance-Dream’, Fête Galante, which is really a one-act opera designed to be performed with dancing. But it works well in sound only: it’s an evocation of the world of commedia dell’arte, with its unhappy Pierrot a loser in love, but telling a story where (like Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci) real jealousy and passion take over from simulation, with fatal effects. The sleeve notes and packaging are exemplary, telling us everything needful about the work and its background in 1923. Smyth’s talent for musical pastiche is richly evident in the opening numbers, where she revives the ‘galant’ style of the early classical period with a small vocal and orchestral ensemble, but the genius of the piece is in the way her harmonic palette changes as her story moves to real deception, betrayal and tragedy, becoming near-Wagnerian, albeit still in miniature: the ending brings a return to pastiche and artificiality, but this time with tragic irony. Among the gifted solo singers, Felix Kemp and Alessandro Fisher are well contrasted, fine tenors, and the whole is thoughtfully directed by Odaline de la Martinez. To fill the disc, there’s a lovely reading by Dame Felicity Lott of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince in the version set as melodrama by Liza Lehmann, with Valerie Langfield playing the piano accompaniment beautifully. You can get the recording by going to

Mozart: Piano concerto no. 20 K466, piano concerto no. 21 K467, Overture to Don Giovanni. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Manchester Camerata, conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy (Chandos CHAN 20083)

The project to record all Mozart’s piano concertos in Manchester, with Bavouzet, the Camerata and Gábor Takács-Nagy, has been fascinating to watch unfold. It began with some recordings pairing concerti with Mozart’s Divertimenti, but now, with the Stoller Hall at Chetham’s as the regular venue, is turning to his opera overtures as foils to the maturer piano masterpieces. It’s been a wonderful experience to witness succesive concerts as two amazingly gifted artists collaborate, and I’ve reviewed a number as they’ve happened. As the recordings come out on Chandos, this happens to be one that I didn’t get to hear live, and it’s something to treasure. The Yamaha piano, big toned enough in the hall, is balanced down here to remind us that Mozart’s pianos were not all-conquering thunder-beasts, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s playing of these two highly-popular works is a joy. Concerto no. 20, one of just two he wrote in a minor key, features Beethoven’s cadenzas for it – you can see why he valued it – and no. 21, with the much loved ‘Elvira Madigan’ slow movement, is here played by Bavouzet in conscious tribute to Friedrich Gulda’s interpretation (subtly varying rubato in the melody over a perfectly regular triplet background) and with Gulda’s own elegant cadenzas.

Arnold Cooke: Piano trio, piano quartet, piano quintet. The Pleyel Ensemble (Mike Purton Recording Services MPR105)

Arnold Cooke was a Yorkshireman born in 1906, living almost to the age of 99, and a prolific composer through seven decades. Though much of his teaching was done at Trinity College of Music in London, he initially taught at the Royal Manchester College and the RNCM is where his archive lies. In these world premiere recordings, the Pleyel Ensemble (Harvey Davies, Benedict Holland, Sarah Ewins, Susie Mészáros and Heather Bills) continue the task of recording some of its highlight works. And they offer an interesting sidelight on the oeuvre of 20th-century music, as Cooke absorbed a variety of styles including those of Brahms and Hindemith and, to some extent, Shostakovich, and was renowned as a craftsman composer of the highest order. Where his music takes flight and sings is in his slow movements, each of which in the works on this disc is harmonically warm and gloriously melodic. The names of the Pleyel Ensemble’s members will be familiar to many who follow music in Manchester and elsewhere, and the playing is superb. The CD has been produced by Harvey Davies as part-contribution to a PhD: the sleeve notes unfortunately contain an apparent reprint of a biographical note on Cooke written for a previous recording, referring to ‘the present two violin and piano sonatas’, plus a mis-spelling of John Ogdon’s surname.

Christoph Maria Wagner: remiX. Ruth Weber, soprano, E-MEX Ensemble, Christoph Maria Wagner, piano and conductor, Carter Williams, electronics (Coviello Classics COV91728)

Christoph Wagner – no relation to the Richard dynasty – is the charming and talented German composer who provided lovely orchestral versions of two piano works by Charles Hallé for the concert by the Hallé Orchestra here celebrating its founder’s 200th birthday in April this year. He wrote them originally for the orchestra in Hallé’s birthplace, Hagen, where he was composer-in-residence a few years ago. Their elegant reminiscences of the soundworlds of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, however, were very different from the kind of writing Christoph normally likes to do, though the common factor is his skill in pastiche and re-styling from both past and present. The major pieces here are a set of Deutsche Volkslieder for soprano and large ensemble – idiosyncratic treatments of original folk rhymes – and his remiX V of Scriabin, done in techno style for piano, live electronics and prerecorded loops. He also gives the treatment to Beethoven’s fifth symphony first movement and other archetypal pieces, including Mozart’s Sonata facile ma non troppo done in the style of John Cage: I liked that a lot, as it’s really just having fun with others’ seriousness.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Review of Opera North's The Greek Passion

Opera North have put a huge amount of resource into this new production of Martinů’s last opera (in the original, 1957-written, version).

It needs a long cast list – there are 19 named roles in the programme, and none is overwhelmingly more important than the others – and the chorus members have a vital role to play, because it’s essentially about two communities and they represent both.

The villagers of Lycovrissi are to present a Passion play (the imagery of the opening tableau, in Christopher Alden’s production here, is reminiscent of the Oberammergau play, now only a few months away from its next round of performances).

Roles are allocated, almost too precisely true to life: Yannakos the postman will be Peter; young Michelis will be John; Katerina, a widow, and Panait, her drunken lover, will be the Magdalen and Judas respectively. And the shepherd Manolios will be Christ.

Manolios takes his role seriously – he studies the Bible with the other ‘apostles’, and prepares to turn his back, at least for the time being, on marriage to his fiancée, Lenio.

Then village life is disrupted by the arrival of a crowd of refugees – they are not foreigners, but an entire uprooted community of fellow-Greeks, with their own village priest, who have been forced from their homes by the Turks. They need food and they need a place to live.

But the priest of Lycovrissi, Grigoris, rejects them and persuades his flock to do the same. Only Manolios and his fellow-disciples see them with compassion. The rest of the story works itself out as a real-life parallel to the rejection and killing of Jesus in the Passion story: in the end Manolios, having begun to persuade the villagers of the need to help those in need, is excommunicated and finally murdered.

It's a good tale – based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, who also wrote Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. If you look for them, there are echoes of the Gospel all the way through: Ladas, the miser, tries to lead Yannakos astray like Satan tempting Christ; the schoolmaster Ivan Sharpe becomes a Caiaphas, pronouncing of Manolios ‘He’s dangerous, because no fault can be found in him’; before the final denouement, Manolios shares a parable with his ‘flock’ like Jesus’ Last Supper, and we hear that he is ‘… there, and in their midst’. The chorus even quotes from the Song of Songs in the introduction to the wedding scene (Lenio now having rejected Manolios and hitched herself with someone else), including the ominous line that ‘ … summer is ended, and we are not saved.’

Martinů, who wrote the libretto himself, saw opera more as a theatre of ideas than an unveiling of psychological truth. He didn’t write long arias to reveal his characters’ innermost selves. What he wanted was drama, and story-telling. He uses a narrator to introduce each act except the last (but twice within that one), and a kaleidoscopic variety of styles of music to accompany each scene, many of which melt into one another.

So this piece demands a lot from a director, and Alden, with designer Charles Edwards, has given Opera North a vivid, in-yer-face production with a message. Perhaps almost too much of a message … displaying ‘Give us what you have too much of’ in huge letters over the heads of the chorus as they represent the refugees certainly applies the moral of the story, but it should have sunk in, for anyone with ears to hear, anyway. The company’s Manchester Evening News Theatre Award-winning production of Martinů’s Julietta, staged over 20 years ago with Paul Nilon in the leading role, made us think, rather than battering us with its lessons.

It remains to say that the cast of The Greek Passion are all excellent, and not surprisingly, as they include many of the best experienced male singers Opera North works with – Stephen Gadd, Jonathan Best, Steven Page (as The Captain, a character who is the narrator but also morphs into such forms as the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, the better to relate to us today), Paul Nilon, Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts, John Savournin. Young tenor Nicky Spence is also outstanding as Manolios, as is Magdalena Molendowska as the Magdalen character, Katerina: two magnificent voices used with great artistry.

Garry Walker, now music-director-designate of the company, conducts with a sure hand and there are some ravishly beautiful sounds from the orchestra along the way.

Nicky Spence as Jesus and the chorus of Opera North in The Greek Passion c Tristram Kenton

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Review of Opera North's Giulio Cesare

Back after seven years, one of Opera North’s best productions of baroque opera returns, and with a cast that’s almost as universally strong as it was in 2012.
One of them – counter-tenor James Laing, as Tolomeo, the narcissistic, psychopathic, moody and lecherous baddie of the story (aka Ptolomy, to ancient historians) – indeed returns to his role, just as horrifyingly antipathetic as before.
The story is of Julius Caesar in Egypt. It opens when his erstwhile Roman rival, Pompey, has already been murdered by Ptolomy – the overture is accompanied by a helpful dumb-show in which we see him knifed by Tolomeo and his general, Achilla.
Ptolomy’s sister and incestuous queen, Cleopatra, however, not only is competing with her brother/husband for supreme rule in Egypt but also sets out to seduce Caesar. Pompey’s widow, Cornelia, and son, Sesto, are out for revenge, though Cornelia is desperately vulnerable to advances from both Achilla and Ptolomy.
It’s a long piece: Handel’s operas usually are. Most of the scenes are confrontations, and the emotions are strong but unvaried and strictly sequenced (that’s the concept of Affekt).
Given those constraints, any director has to use resources skilfully, and the production by Tim Albery does that. The set is a movable one in two pieces, but they come together and apart and work from different angles, so it can evoke inside and outside, battles and bedrooms (including Cleopatra’s famous bath, in an interior that, if not a burnished throne, looks like a highly burnished boudoir).
And the design concept gives the warring nations (Romans and Egyptians) colour-coding and vivid symbolic accessories, such as the Scissorhands-style nail extensions worn by Tolomeo. Credit Leslie Travers for those effects.
The singing, which is for virtuosic performers on all sides, is what counts. Maria Sanner as Cesare (one of two trouser roles for female singers here) is at her best in the more mellow numbers, and though she can hold her own for power when placed front-of-stage, isn’t always given that advantage. James Laing is icily nasty and sustains his energy even when his voice occasionally tires.
But the star of the show in many ways is Lucie Chartin, as Cleopatra. She turns on the sex appeal so much in the first part of the story that she’s in danger of making the character a saucy little tart, but she finds real dignity and pathos later on, turning Piangeró la sorte mia, sung from floor level, into a baroque equivalent of Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, and displaying technical brilliance in her trills and leaps in Da tempeste il legno infranto, as well as a warm mezza voce elsewhere.
And matching her for subtlety is Heather Lowe, one of the Royal Northern College of Music’s best products of recent years, as Sesto. She makes as remarkable a success of it as did Kathryn Rudge, another lovely RNCM high mezzo, in the original production.
And Amy J Payne, who took the role of Cornelia on Wednesday, gave a superb performance as Cornelia, full of emotion and vivid acting ability, and with sustained quality from beginning to end. Handel’s slow, lamenting arias, with the guiding hand of conductor Christian Curnyn, have never sounded better than this.

Lucie Chartin as Cleopatra and Maria Sanner as Giulio Cesare in 
Opera North's production of Handel's opera. c Alastair Muir

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert 2nd November 2019

Ever wondered what swarming bees, murmurations of starlings, a plague of locusts and night-time insect sounds are like when expressed in music?

Philip Grange has the answers. His Violin Concerto, given its world premiere by Carolin Widmann and the BBC Philharmonic under Ben Gernon, is explicitly about all those. The programme note spells it out: the world of swarms, flocks and plagues is mainly expressed by the orchestra through the single-movement work’s fast sections, and the night insects come into it in the context of the slower ones, where the violin has extended solos.

But there’s more. The point of these evocations of the natural world (which Philip Grange links with mammalian herds, as well) is to say something about the individual and the group – how we can think as rational individuals and at the same time find the ‘whim of the group’ counts for more. He even refers to ‘the current political landscape and the events that have led us to where we are’. I wonder if that was written on the assumption that something politically significant would have happened on 31st October last?

But back to the music. One of the more intriguing aspects of the Violin Concerto’s concept is that the solo has to struggle to emerge from the group – at times it’s quite submerged beneath the orchestral sounds, and the work ends with something very like a cadenza (briefly, but only briefly, accompanied), so that the solo finally triumphs by being completely on its own. That’s a new approach to the concerto tradition, and an effective one.

Prior to it, there are passages more akin to the old idea of ‘dialogue’ (for instance when the solo violin tries to dance, but the rest of the orchestra are too busy to join her), and the music offering soloistic display has some quite spooky noises for its accompaniment (Hallowe’en raising its baleful face again?). The sheer complication of the score makes it almost as much a concerto for orchestra as for the soloist, which may have been the intention all along.

Ben Gernon piloted the BBC Philharmonic through its complications with a sure hand, as he had for the opening piece of Stravinsky – the proto-opera/ballet/tone poem Song of the Nightingale, whose music was begun before The Firebird, completed after Petrushka, and finally launched shortly before The Rite of Spring.

No wonder it disappeared from view to some extent, and no wonder you keep hearing things that seem reminiscent of the other, more familiar, pieces. The story’s set in old China, and the musical chinoiserie (jingling percussion, pentatonic unison melodies – the usual stuff) does get a bit annoying. But it was played with considerable class, with distinctive solos from guest leader Igor Yuzefovich, principal flute Alex Jakeman and guest principal trumpet Aaron Akugbo.

(Incidentally, for observant programme readers who might have been alarmed: Peter Dixon has not retired as principal cello: Bozidar Vukotic was guesting in his place but got the wrong symbol attached to his name).

The second half of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 1 (‘Winter Daydreams’). Gernon brought bold, emphatic style to the build-up of its opening movement, with eloquent pauses and springy rhythms, and there were surprises later on as well: a fierce and exciting development section of that Allegro, and a great island of sound in the unison horns’ theme in the Andante cantabile. The scherzo had something of the sort of delicacy a Mendelssohn scherzo should have; and the finale, setting a frenetic pace for Allegro moderato but gaining considerable weight by the end, was hugely enjoyable if a bit scrambly. I always enjoy Ben Gernon’s fresh takes on the warhorses, and this was no exception.

Carolin Widmann (left) and Ben Gernon with the BBC Philharmonic

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's The Silver Lake at Buxton Opera House

Premiered in 1933, The Silver Lake was the last theatre work Kurt Weill completed before being forced out of Germany by the Nazis. His collaborator was Georg Kaiser, a gifted playwright who was very successful in the Weimar Republic era, and it’s altogether a more poetic and fanciful creation than most of his work with Berthold Brecht.

The fast-moving succession of scenes (with a narrator to make sure you don’t miss anything) nonetheless convey a clear social message. It begins with the poor and hungry queuing for inadequate handouts because they can’t afford the food shops’ prices, and quickly points out that this is because capitalism dictates that prices must remain high, even if the food itself is getting thrown away to ensure that demand outstrips supply.

A crowd bursts into a shop and loots it, but the character on whom we focus, Severin, takes just one rare thing: a pineapple. He’s shot in the leg by policeman Olim, who’s racked by guilt but tells himself he can’t afford to help him – until he wins the lottery and becomes a rich man.

He takes Severin into the castle he has now acquired and seeks to make amends, but the two of them, once reconciled, are cheated out of their property by their housekeeper, a survivor of the old nobility (with help from her baronial friend). They are dispossessed and head for the land where justice reigns, across the Silver Lake which miraculously freezes over to grant them passage.

This was enough to ensure the Nazis got the show closed after two weeks, and Weill was soon on his way out of the country.

The piece is subtitled ‘A Winter’s Tale’, and in some ways is a fairy story. With spoken dialogue and narration, it’s in the ‘Singspiel’ tradition (the German equivalent of a musical), like The Magic Flute – and Weill’s rich and multi-coloured score, requiring an  opera-quality chorus and using some of Mozart’s devices, too (such as a chorale with a walking bass, for the final journey) is a many-splendoured thing.

English Touring Opera’s artistic boss, James Conway, is the director, and Kurt Weill expert James Holmes (well known to Opera North devotees) conducts. Such resources as ETO has to throw at a project are visible here, with quite an elaborate set by James Wiltshire, including screen projection, and the stage is peopled, in addition to its 14 credited singers, with members of Streetwise Opera’s groups involving homeless people.

The narration and spoken dialogue are in English, and Conway and Holmes have put the choral numbers into English, too, but the solo ones are in the original German … a bit odd, that seems; but with English surtitles for both on display, both electronically and in placards held up by the cast from time to time, we don’t miss a thing.

ETO have done a great job with this rarity and should be congratulated. There’s a quality line-up of principals, with Ronald Samm as Olim, David Webb as Severin, Clarissa Meek as the nasty housekeeper Frau von Luber and Luci Briginshaw as her poor relation Fennimore, and Bernadatte Iglich takes credit as both choreographer (yes, there’s dancing in it, too) and narrator.

Ronald Samm as Olim in English Touring Opera's The Silver Lake c Richard Hubert Smith

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's The Seraglio at Buxton Opera House

This is the piece of which Emperor Josef II reportedly said there were ‘too many notes’ – at least as represented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

What he actually said should probably be translated as ‘an awful lot of notes’, or ‘a vast amount of music’, which is pretty accurate. It’s a story where very little happens but there are wonderful things in the score.

Josef might have been disappointed in the lack of action. He was much more keen on ‘Singspiel’ (a play with music, the 18th century equivalent of light opera or musicals, which is what this is) than all-sung opera, with its elaborate ensemble numbers and reflective arias.

The story is almost a cliché of its time: hero seeks and must set free a beautiful girl held captive by a big, bad villain. Except here there are two heroes and two pretty girls – the noble Belmonte and his sidekick Pedrillo, seeking lost loves Konstanze and Blonde, respectively, both held in the harem of Pasha Selim (who rather fancies adding Konstanze to his collection of wives) and guarded by Osmin (with similar designs on Blonde).

The ‘abduction’, or escape attempt, comes unstuck, but it turns out that the Muslim Selim has a bigger concept of honour and mercy than the European and therefore ‘Christian’ would-be escapees, and he finally sets them free anyway.

There’s room for fun along the way in presenting the story, which director Stephen Medcalf and his cast do in near-pantomimic style, and which the audience (witnessing it in English and with English surtitles on screen just in case they’re hard of hearing) much enjoy.

And in that multitude of notes, Mozart supplies plenty of lovely music and not a few operatic ensemble pieces. In fact, the major part of the second Act (broken here with the interval at the point where Pedrillo is about to get Osmin drunk) consists simply of two arias by Blonde framing a central section made up of two by Konstanze.

It’s at this point we realize that one of the concepts brought to the piece by Medcalf and designer Adam Wiltshire is that the harem is a collection of caged songbirds: it’s represented by two metal frameworks, closed at the top, and with mirrors to make the modest number of human resources available to English Touring Opera (just two additional girls and two guys) represent a crowd.

That’s one side of a two-part set placed on a central revolve, which does its job very well. The need to get eight voices on stage for choruses brings the occasional incongruity (near the beginning Pedrillo, having said he’ll ‘quickly hide’, comes right back on to sing in one of them), but it’s a price you pay for opera on this scale.

The principals do a fine job: Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo) is a strong singer with a good comic gift, and John-Colyn Gyeantey brings tenderness to his tenor role; Matthew Stiff (Osmin) reaches for the low notes effectively. The girls (Lucy Hall as Konstanze and Nazan Fikret as Blonde) are very good, especially once warmed up for that feast of vocal art in the second Act. Alex Andreou delivers the spoken role of Pasha Selim with studied gravity.

And John Andrews’ conducting gives us pleasant variety of tempo and generous helpings of ‘Turkish’ colour from the pit.

English Touring Opera's The Seraglio c Jane Hobson