Saturday, 29 February 2020

Review of Olga Stezhko's recital 28th February 2020

The Mid-day Concerts welcomed Belarus-born Olga Stezhko for a 40-minute recital of French piano music from the first third of the 20th century. She’s made that her speciality, and her sense of atmosphere and delicacy in Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc are an asset to the music in each case. She achieves most when she’s playing gently: every note has its weight and value precisely expressed, there are telling gaps in the sound tapestry as she weaves it, and even when she turns up the power there can be a kind of nostalgia in her playing – humour, too.

Her programme began with Book 2 of Debussy’s Images. ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ created a light wash of tone, with clear highlights but still a sense of shape and direction; ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ saw a fuller sound emerge, but that, likewise, vanished magically in a fade-away ending; and ‘Poissons d’or’ was dazzling and subtle at the same time.

Poulenc’s Trois Pièces pour Piano were a serendipity: ‘Pastorale’ almost similar to the Debussy in its mystery and esoteric harmonic effects, while in ‘Hymne’ she evoked a finely controlled sense of the unexpected. The final ‘Toccata’, by contrast, was an invigorating – and still controlled – workout.

She played nos. 2, 4 and 5 of Ravel’s Miroirs in a way that, for all its beauties, was bewitching. The birds of ‘Oiseaux tristes’ were definitely sad, ‘Alborado del gracioso’ was springy, fun and yet with a touch of longing, and ‘La vallée des cloches’ had a series of deep sighs in its phrasing.

It was an individual, technically accomplished and seriously felt response to music in which harmonic colour and impressionistic mood-painting count more than anything.

Olga Stezhko c Chris Pasipanodya

Friday, 21 February 2020

Review of Hallé concert 20th February 2020

It takes a big pianistic personality to make Rachmaninov’s second concerto sound fresh and different, but Boris Giltburg has that personality – and the ability to go with it.

His playing of it with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé was arresting from the very first note – the bass played as a kind of clear grace-note to the first chord, with the formula repeated, at varying speed, on almost every subsequent one in that crescendo sequence – which made it all sound quite menacing.

That was followed by an emphatically ponderous way (at first) with the first theme that may have surprised even the accompanying orchestra a little. But that’s the way Boris likes it: deep and soulful in the big themes and dazzlingly brilliant in the helter-skelters. It sounds very Russian (he’s Israeli but born in Moscow) and perhaps a bit flash – but Russian music needs that element, too. Gloomy, beautiful and stunning all at the same time.

The Hallé’s wind principals made some superb contributions in their solos – Sergio Castelló López’ clarinet in particular at this stage, and in the second movement Amy Yule’s flute also: it was here that the tempo flowed much more smoothly and built feeling less hysterically. The orchestral details were beautifully articulated under Sir Mark’s direction, and with the violins, led by Eva Thórarinsdóttir, evoking expression and sustaining the mood to the very end.

The finale was every bit as impactful as the opening, with surging momentum and seriously scary pace by the end. Boris Giltburg (who undertook the assignment of this concert at short notice in place of Alexander Gavrylyuk) has built a big reputation playing Rachmaninov, and this performance showed why. His approach is never routine and presses the expressive power of the music to its limit – something his audience appreciated and loved.

They also surely appreciated the serene equilibrium and rhythmical alertness of Sir Mark’s reading of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in its four contrasted movements. The smaller than full string body gave it crispness as well as a rich sound, the oboe (Stéphane Rancourt) and cor anglais (Thomas Davey) solos were eloquent, and there was a lovely burst of deep feeling from the strings in the Menuet reprise, while the final Rigaudon was both bouncy and poised.

Full forces were on parade for Prokoviev’s Symphony no. 7. It’s an ambiguous piece – superficially straightforward and tuneful, but with little touches of foreboding and unease (perhaps the most a good Soviet citizen felt he could say while Stalin was still alive). But the opening has a tinge of Shostakovich’s starkness, and the film-score-ish writing that follows is upended by spiky jollity. Even the ‘circus’ music of the last movement, though fun, comes near to irony, and the solemnity that ensues sounds almost like sarcasm. Sir Mark and his players made the orchestral sound glitter, but were always alert to the sombre tones also in the mix.

Sir Mark Elder

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert 1st February 2020

At first sight, putting Myaskovsky’s sixth symphony into a programme immediately following the Hallé’s performance of Beethoven’s ninth might seem an inspired comparison. Both have four long movements, and in both cases the last is a choral one.

But in Myaskovsky’s the choral part is actually optional – putting words to the tune of an Orthodox chant that could stand on its own if necessary – whereas you could hardly say that the words are optional in Beethoven’s case.

I was glad that Vassily Sinaisky presented the 1923 symphony, though, because it’s a work with a voice all its own. Epic, in the post-Mahlerian tradition of being a journey that crosses many territories, it also seems, subtly, to speak to the Russian nation’s soul in the way that many of Shostakovich’s symphonies did.

Maybe Myaskovsky was defying political orthodoxy in one way, because it’s not the conventional darkness-to-light symphony that was routinely expected in his time: there’s a Dies Irae in the final movement, and the chant is a funerary one, after all, despite the previously dominating themes of jollity, using songs of revolutionary fervor. But on the other hand he gets quotations from the death of Boris Godunov and the end of Tchaikovsky’s sixth into his first movement, not his last, and right at the end there is a clear impression of serenity.

At least there was in Sinaisky’s interpretation, which was as rich and many-layered as the work itself. Its slow movement contained some seriously beautiful playing from the wind soloists of the Philharmonic, as the strings, led by Yuri Torchinsky, were soulful in their expression also.

Soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 was Liza Ferschtman – not Tasmin Little, as originally planned, but what a superb substitute. She responded to the varying emotions of the piece with both dreaminess and fierce attack, dispatching the mid-work cadenza with panache, and playing the long lyrical interludes of the second part gorgeously, matched by some purple tutti passages from the orchestra near the end.

She followed this display with another of technical skill in the service of beauty: Ysaÿe’s solo sonata no. 5, first movement.

The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music: two scenes from The Golden Cockerel ballet. It was an attractive appetizer, with the familiar Wedding Procession tune built up to effectively and then rumbustiously played, at least in intent.

Vassily Sinaisky

Friday, 31 January 2020

Review of Hallé concert 30th January 2020

When this last concert of January was first planned by the Hallé and their partners in our Manchester Beethovenfest (probably around two years ago), it can hardly have occurred to anyone that the strains of the Ode to Joy setting in the Choral Symphony would be heard on the eve of the day we left the European Union.

Some in the audience were aware of it last night, though, and it was hard to tell whether the standing ovation which greeted the end of the piece was purely in tribute to a great performance (though it was) or also in memoriam of an era of shared European identity.

It was good to see a sell-out concert at the Bridgewater Hall again, anyway, and to hear the ‘Manchester roar’ that Charles Hallé used to be familiar with, again arising from the assembled throng. Members of the Association of British Orchestras – whose presence helped to fill those seats – on their annual conference, did at least get a sample of what we do best.

Sir Mark Elder mixed some slightly less familiar Beethoven in with the box office draws for this programme: the Elegischer Gesang, performed by the Hallé Youth Choir (with members of the RNCM Chamber Choir) and strings of the orchestra, being one serendipity. They brought lovely mellow tone to this most mellow of farewells.

The Hallé Choir gave us the final Angels’ Chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives, too. The whole oratorio is coming on 9th April, so it was a trailer – sung with such dramatic levels of contrast that the vocal lines were down to whispers at times, but an appetizer without doubt.

Drama is what Sir Mark does superbly well, as the opening Leonore no. 3 overture demonstrated. Its initial bars were distant and mysterious, with palpably unnerving stresses; its first main theme thrilling in its optimistic energy; the scene of the distant trumpet calls well caught in its hymn-like confidence combined with jittery unease. And in the later section we heard a sparky solo from the Hallé’s new principal flute, Amy Yule – her colleagues the leaders of oboe and bassoon were to shine alongside her equally in the Ruins of Athens overture later.

The Ninth Symphony is one Sir Mark has conducted on a number of big occasions in the past with the Hallé. This was one of the best, as its tantalizing sense of anticipation – grim and anxious in the first movement, busy and cheerful in the second, serene and exalted in the third – led to a finale that was multi-faceted and heartfelt. The four soloists (Elizabeth Atherton, Sarah Castle, David Butt Philip and Neal Davies) were placed behind the orchestra just in front of the chorus, which lent their voices a kind of aural halo, and the playing of the Hallé Orchestra, led by Zoe Beyers, had all the contrasts of crispness and sweetness Sir Mark evokes from his players so well. Yes, it was a great performance.

Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé

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