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 Polly Graham 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)

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Review of Passion, by Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales, The Lowry

‘Dance Opera’ is the genre Music Theatre Wales offered last night. It’s not a concept we encounter often – though Opera North and Phoenix Dance are putting The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi on the same bill next year (here in March), that will be a dance piece followed by an opera one, not something that’s both at once.

Passion, by Pascal Dusapin, co-directed by Michael McCarthy and Caroline Finn, is a brave attempt to combine the arts. And, to be sure, the stage is not big enough for all of them. So the six singers of vocal group Exaudi, whose musical role was at times as prominent as those of the two main soloists, remained invisible until they took their bows at the end. The ‘chorus’, in one sense, was the half-dozen dancers, who we did see, and they worked around and partly with the two vocal protagonists, mirroring and extending in movement and gesture the thoughts and emotions the music was making audible. If the score contains dance notation as well as music staves, it must be a very big book indeed.

The basic ‘story’ is Orpheus and Eurydice – fruitful soil for operatic invention in the past, of course (whether by Monteverdi, Gluck, or in satirical guise by Offenbach). They are lovers, she dies, he penetrates the Underworld to find her but fails to bring her back because he can’t bear to lead her out without looking back at her beauty. Only whereas in the tragic presentations of the classic myth her silence is the source of his agony, in this she has a great deal to say – a very great deal. Whether they hear each other is another matter.

Whether that’s a righteous restoration of gender balance or not, or maybe an update of Orpheus and Eurydice to make it a dysfunctional husband-wife relationship, I’m unsure. Dusapin’s piece seems to be about love and loss – the pain of separation and death’s inevitability, and it deliberately avoids a narrative structure, instead presenting aspects of the same theme in a series of dawning realizations. Other than a fairly vigorous section as Orpheus makes his approach to the world beyond (was that the Furies of the original tale whose wrath he had to tame through music?), it’s rather static in musical character – long, sustained clusters of notes being the recurring orchestral contribution. It’s tempting to say it starts at a snail’s pace and then gets slower.

There are some telling solo passages, especially those for harpsichord and harp, and Dusapin’s greatest gift for theatre music (though he blends the note clusters beautifully) is in this simple, single-timbre writing. The standard of musical achievement in performance was incredibly high: Jennifer France (as ‘Her’) is a brilliant young soprano singer and the fact that she could do it even while being picked up and twirled around by some of the dancers only increased my admiration. Johnny Herford (also in MTW’s notable Philip Glass opera, The Trial) is likewise a terrific actor-soloist. And the Exaudi singers were in the same bracket.

The dancers delivered their goods with precision and commitment, attempting to raise the emotional temperature even when (it seems to me) the music failed to. At the end, though it got polite applause and there was one very determined female hollerer, I think most of us were left wondering: just where was the Passion?

Friday, 26 October 2018

Review of Halle concert conducted by Sir Mark Elder 25 October

Sir Mark Elder’s first concert in the Hallé Thursday series for 2018-19 was on clearly mapped Hallé territory – Richard Strauss and Elgar. They have a reputation, and a tradition, of playing these composers’ music very well.

They’ve already recorded the second Elgar symphony, and, judging by the microphones around the platform, they’re doing the same right now with Strauss’s Don Quixote.

The soloists were their own principals, Nicholas Trygstad, cello, and Timothy Pooley, viola, and (though it won’t be discernible in any purely audio document of the occasion) they and their colleagues sharing the characterization of the doleful knight and his squire wore colour-coded shirts for easy identification by the audience. There was a surtitle screen, too, to help us keep abreast of events in the story as depicted in Strauss’s introduction and variations.

That was good music education, but in many ways the pictorial and dramatic power coming over in purely musical terms was enough to lead us through. Sir Mark Elder revels in the orchestral sound effects supplied generously in this score (sheep bleating via flutter-tongued wind instruments, pizzicato water droplets, a wind machine and so on), and even more so in the delicacy of the hero’s lucid interludes and the sweetness of his romantic dreams.

From the beginning, as Stéphane Rancourt’s oboe solo was heard against the purest whispered tone from back-desk violins, the fantasy world of Cervantes’ tale was subtly created, and the textures accompanying the protagonists’ musical representatives were gloriously clear. There was a brief moment of slight intonational uncertainty, but the orchestral brass were in magnificent fettle.

Variations three and five were also outstanding for richness of tone in all departments, mellow brass included, with lovely string playing under soloist-leader Lyn Fletcher and perfectly blended woodwind chords, and the battle scene was virtuosically played.

Nicholas Trygstad and Timothy Pooley shone in their solo roles, showing both technical mastery and expressive power.

Elgar’s Symphony no. 2, in Sir Mark’s hands, begins where his first symphony left off, with the tread of a thousand marching feet. The vigour and strength of its opening, with the pace of the main theme slightly broadening at its return, was deeply impressive, and there was gloriously ethereal string playing in the middle of the movement and a loving caress at the beginning of the music’s reprise.

In many ways the Larghetto second movement was the emotional core of the performance, its rapt feeling casting a spell over the hall, its structure building to a peak of intensity, and its final fade-out mesmerizing.

The third movement – a Rondo in form but a scherzo in function – revealed a multi-faceted quality: nostalgic and doom-laden, exuberant and grim. There’s a real window into Elgar’s complex psychology here, and Elder does not miss a whit of it. And the intoxicating main theme of the finale had just enough of a swing to make it beguiling as well as noble and positive. Its rhythmic qualities were emphasized as the movement continued, to build to a climax of surging waves of melody propelled by stirrings of volcanic emotion, with a benediction in the final, long-sustained chord.