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.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Review of Halle series opening concert conducted by Edward Gardner


Edward Gardner was back amongst friends when he opened the Hallé’s Thursday series concerts. This was the place where he made his mark, as the Manchester orchestra’s first ever assistant conductor (and Youth Orchestra music director), and he’s been a welcome visitor ever since.

There’s an air of personal authority to him now, and a physical style a little less reminiscent of Sir Mark Elder – from whom he undoubtedly learnt a lot in those early days – and both the Hallé Orchestra members and the Hallé Choir gave him of their best.

Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra was characterized by explosive precision from the Hallé brass where their impact most mattered, and measured, eloquent, long-breathed phrasing in Gardner’s exposition of the score. Its huge orchestral resources were expertly controlled and blended, the sprawling structure of the tone poem given clarity and cohesion, and its progress accentuated by an extended progression of tension, speed and intensity towards the recall of its famous ‘Sunrise’ opening.

There was room, too, for a little indulgence in the gentler side of its character (though Gardner’s brisk treatment of the waltz theme was never sentimental), and just a little of the Hallé’s soupiest Viennese string sound to close the work.

Gardner’s recent recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass was Grammy-nominated, and for the performance of it that followed here he had two soloists from that occasion (part of his complete orchestral works series with his Bergen Philharmonic colleagues). Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Stuart Skelton, tenor, were therefore well aware of what he wanted to hear, and the quartet was very well completed by James Platt, bass, and Dame Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano.

Sara Jakubiak set the tone with her passionate, vehement cry for mercy in the Kyrie, and a glistering, suitably angelic declamation of the opening words of the Gloria. The work is as operatic a setting of church liturgy as Verdi’s Requiem, if not more so, and Stuart Skelton held his own in the dialogue-style writing that marks some of Janáček’s vision and dominated in the extraordinarily high tessitura of the Credo’s opening. The chorus, equally, has a vital dramatic role to play: the Hallé Choir, trained by Matthew Hamilton, were alive to that, producing a thrilling climax to the Credo that proclaimed a sense of struggle, not easy victory.

Janáček’s extended Sanctus grew in rhythmic life and energy to a point of high rejoicing, and contrasted powerfully with the mystery-laden and fervent music of the Agnus Dei.

The organ has a solo as well as accompanimental role in this Mass, making a completing statement of its own after the singing has ceased, which Darius Battiwalla delivered with resonant virtuosity before the jaunty, exuberant orchestral postlude, with its ringing fanfares (the Hallé  brass again brilliant in tone) recalling the liveliness of the work’s beginning.

Janáček was an organist himself and knew the feel of the liturgy. He was also a master of the theatre, and united his senses of drama and humanity in this music. Edward Gardner and his Manchester forces captured the same unique combination.


Edward Gardner

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review of Opera North's Tosca


Opera North’s new production on this visit is of Puccini’s Tosca – an opera they last performed 10 years ago. It comes to The Lowry on 14th and 16th November, and I went to size it up last week in Leeds.

Their last version was not a pretty sight. The director was making comparisons with the Italy of Berlusconi and Forza Italia, and the nasty, lustful police chief Baron Scarpia was as revolting as they get (which, let’s face it, he is meant to be).

This time we’re in the present day again, and, if you look at the programme book, it’s Donald Trump we’re supposed to see as his parallel, as director Edward Dick presents the story. You can understand where that’s coming from: the heroine, Floria Tosca, is an opera singer in love with a painter (Mario Cavaradossi) whose sympathy for an escaped political prisoner puts him on the wrong side of the powers that be – in particular of Scarpia, who tortures Cavaradossi physically and Tosca mentally until she cracks. She yields to his lustful will until she thinks she’s secured her lover’s freedom, then stabs the villain to death after he says there’ll be nothing but a mock execution for Cavaradossi the next morning. Perhaps I shouldn’t give away what happens next …

So it’s about a man whose lust for women is as big as his lust for power, both cloaked in a pose of religious piety. They didn’t give Scarpia a blond wig with a comb-over (alternatively, if they’d foreseen now-current events, they might have made him up to look like Brett Cavanaugh, and we could all think of other cases in point). He’s actually a villain right out of Victorian melodrama – and the play Tosca is based on was a Victorian melodrama to begin with anyway.

But it’s also about a brave and passionate woman: the operatic role for a great dramatic soprano, in many ways. Here Opera North, and Mr Dick, have struck gold this time. Giselle Allen is an amazing interpreter of the role. She acts it like a real opera singer, not flouncing around as a ‘diva’ but an extrovert and a performer, still insecure beneath it; so her jealousy is a weakness and part of her personality, not an exaggeration. I liked the way she treats Scarpia at the start of the second Act, beginning with cautious politeness though she’s repulsed by him, too.

Rafael Rojas is appealing and in excellent tenor voice as Cavaradossi. He doesn’t have to do much but act the noble hero and sing like one too, and he does precisely that.

Scarpia, though, is a challenge: too nasty and you have a pantomime villain, too realistic and we feel short-changed. Robert Hayward, I think, was looking to make him a man we might really encounter some time, not a monster. This rather goes against the crashing, doom-laden chords that accompany his first appearance, and I’m sure Puccini meant that to be the incarnation of a bogey-man – it isn’t quite that here. Later you wonder whether he’s motivated by power, lust or maybe even sexual impotence … interesting but possibly a bit too psycho-analytical.

There’s a nice touch when, in the middle of Tosca’s great solo aria, Vissi d’arte, he starts filming her passionate outburst on his phone. The piece does stop the entire action, quite unrealistically, after all – whether people decide to applaud after it or not (and it’s a good sign if they don’t – we’re not here for a recital of Maria Callas’s greatest hits).

The conductor is Antony Hermus, a young Dutch musician who I think is quite a find (he won’t be on the podium on 14th November, but he will on the 16th). He has an excellent rapport with Opera North’s orchestra and also some strikingly fresh ways of approaching the phrasing and sound qualities of what can be a hackneyed-sounding score. If Opera North are still looking for their next music director, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s high up on the score-sheet.



Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review of Opera North's The Merry Widow revival


Opera North’s production of The Merry Widow, by Léhar, comes to The Lowry on 15th and 17th November – the former the 40th anniversary, to the day, of the company’s inauguration.

It’s a revival of Giles Havergal’s brilliant production of the operetta, first seen eight years ago, and I went to Leeds to see it on the opening night of the new run. As then, it’s a guaranteed good night out.

The story’s perhaps not quite so topical as it was just after the credit crunch – based on the idea that a country could have spent so much bailing out its own bankers that it faces disaster if their money ever goes abroad – but they do say another financial crisis is just around the corner, so maybe history will repeat itself. It obviously does from time to time, if the story of the imaginary grand-dukedom of ‘Pontevedro’ is anything to go by.

The Merry Widow of the title is the young Hannah Glawari, who fell out with her true sweetheart, Danilo, and married money on the rebound. So much of it, in fact, that when her banker husband dies and she inherits, the fatherland is desperate she should find another Pontevedrian to share her loot with. But she’s living it up in Paris, and there is any number of suitors there …

So the whole show is set in Paris, and by amazing chance good old Danilo is there, too, frittering his life away with the good time girls of Maxim’s nightclub. The one thing he’s determined not to do is to marry Hannah just because it’s his patriotic duty.

Of course it all ends happily. But Opera North, this time, are reminding us of the show’s dark side. It was premiered in 1905, in what we now know was the slide into a horrific world war, and spread around the world in the next few years, and, when you listen for them, the lines are full of references to attacks, retreats and battles as if love and war were all the same. And the vainglorious posturing of minor aristocracy and empty elevation of ‘patriotism’ are very obviously part of the scenario.

Hitler, incidentally, loved it. Léhar, not Wagner, was his real favourite composer.

At the same time, Giles Havergal has not forgotten the real message of The Merry Widow, if there is one – that a damaged relationship can be reborn, once both money and patriotism are left out of the equation. Sentimental? Perhaps, but that’s what the story says, and not many popular love stories are about redemption.

The production, with Stuart Hopps’ ingeniously lively but simple choreography, is full of life, movement, colour and humour. It may not have had quite the pizazz on opening night in Leeds that I remember from last time around, but by the time it hits The Lowry no doubt all of that will be back again.

Katie Bird will be singing Hannah – she takes the role after Máire Flavin completes the Leeds run – and Quirijn de Lang is a suave but sympathetic Danilo. Amy Freston – who else? – returns to play the high-kicking, all-dancing, chorus-girl-turned-ambassador’s-wife, Valencienne. And the real chorus girls of Opera North have a high old time as Maxim’s ladies of the night.

Marie Flavin and admirers in The Merry Widow

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Review of Retrospect Opera's recording of 'Raymond and Agnes'




I’ve been listening to the first full recording of Raymond and Agnes, an opera that gives Manchester’s oldest theatre its place in musical history. It’s been achieved by Cheshire-based Retrospect Opera, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Richard Bonynge, CBE. Soprano Majella Cullagh is the heroine Agnes, tenor Mark Milhofer the hero Raymond, and baritone Andrew Greenan is the evil Baron.

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. Built in 1845, it saw the likes of Charles Dickens, Henry Irving and George Cruickshank tread its boards, 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.

Loder spent most of his career in London and had some notable successes there, but from 1851 to 1855 he was resident in Manchester, as the first purely baton-wielding conductor at the Theatre Royal – previously the orchestra, like many of the time, was directed by its violinist-leader, Charles Seymour.

He and the pianist-conductor Hallé (who had similarly taken over the Gentlemen’s Concerts orchestra directorship from Seymour a few years earlier but was yet to found the orchestra by which he’s mainly remembered today) gathered a company of top international operatic singers at the theatre through the autumn of 1854, 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, based on part of the famous novel, The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (written in 1796).

But Loder never got it on the stage in 1854 – the Crimean War got in the way, blighting the entire opera season, according to Hallé in his memoirs written some time later – and its premiere the following year, with lesser stars, was hardly noticed. I’ve written about this, and Loder’s career in Manchester, in ‘Manchester Sounds’ and elsewhere (see ‘Opera in Manchester 1848-1899’ and ‘E J Loder, Charles Seymour and music at Manchester’s Theatre Royal 1845-1855’) at http://manchestermusicalheritage.blogspot.com/).

It’s a sad story, because there’s every sign that Loder thought he was writing for soloists of exceptional gifts, and in the event he had to make do with the Manchester ‘regulars’ who were also billed for comic operas and suchlike. 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 Retrospect Opera have done us all a service with this recording – it’s of the three-act version later performed in London, whose score is the only one that survives, rather than Loder’s four-act original, but I doubt that much was lost in the adaptation.

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that the quality of Loder’s music was not matched by the quality of the libretto, which he got from one Edward Fitzball before he moved north. Fitzball was the go-to man for sensational popular ‘gothic’ drama scripts at the time, and tastes have changed a lot (Gilbert and Sullivan gave them a real send-up in Ruddigore).

One almost wishes that Fitzball’s convoluted lines had been written in another language – then a clear and natural-sounding English translation could have been made and we’d have been spared his tortured syntax. For all I know, some opera classics may sound just as artificial in their original languages, but most of us would never know it when we read today’s surtitles in the theatre or hear a modern translation.

But it’s the music that counts, and Loder – though the quality of his writing varies – at his best is a very good dramatic composer indeed. His chief model may have been Weber’s Der Freischütz, but I’m convinced he knew his Donizetti and some Verdi, too, and his work needs only committed interpreters and skilled performers to spring to life again.

You can get the CD set from Retrospect Opera here.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Review of Clonter Opera's La Bohème


Clonter Opera does an amazing job each year putting on a complete production of a mainstream repertoire opera, in its own theatre, with young singers who are at the threshold of their professional careers. Its track record bespeaks its skill at talent spotting and the value of its away-from-the-hothouse environment in building skills for future star performers.

This year’s La Bohème is no exception to its form. In many ways it’s one of the best productions it’s done. The set strikes you as soon as you sit down – Grace Venning’s design of a garrett for the starving artistic young men of the title may be largely a collection of junk, but it’s striking and evocative.

And there’s a concept behind the junk, too. Director Harry Fehr presents the story as Rodolfo, the main protagonist, returning after years to the attic in which those great formative experiences of his youth took place. So he enters the stage before the music starts, looking around and remembering. Everything seems to happen within his memories, and at the end the other characters slip away backwards through the doorways, like wraiths at the rising of the sun.

I could quibble about minor incongruities (Rodolfo has to be middle-aged throughout the story, as he can’t rejuvenate instantly to fit the imagined flip back in time; the attic is full of chairs which enable it to convert into the Café Momus for the middle acts, but you wonder at first whether, if the lads were so short of fuel for the winter, they didn’t just burn them), but it’s a cinematic way of telling the story, and you have to suspend disbelief as you see it on stage.

The stark and bare third and fourth acts work brilliantly: in fact the last was one of the best acted endings to La Bohème I’ve ever seen. Movement and placings are well worked out, and at the same time we see young people facing, all unprepared, the reality of death and its ending of their dreams.

There was perhaps a little nervousness in Act One which detracted from a sense of young love’s first joys as the richly famous music was sung (and very well sung), and in a setting with no extras and limited space there’s not much scope for the Christmassy merriment of Act Two, but no doubt later performances will allow for compensation here.

But with Clonter it’s always the voices that are the thing, and here they have struck gold again. Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak (Mimì) is surely a singing actress with a great future, and she effortlessly shone out over the biggest vocal ensembles and accompanimental textures. Russian Alexey Gusev (Marcello) is a natural actor as well as a very good baritone, and Lebanon-born Bechara Moufarrej (Rodolfo) has a refined, mature and flexible tenor. Connor Baiano (Colline) and Jolyon Loy (Schaunard) will have much to give in future, too, and Pedro Ometto (Benoit and Alcindoro) has a comic gift in the making. And Erika Baikoff gave us a Musetta with attitude, not so much a hardened cynic as a youngster blending aggression and naivety (very convincingly), and singing beautifully.

The Clonter Sinfonia, led by Liz Rossi, played the reduced orchestration with fire and affection, and Clive Timms conducted with his accustomed sure hand and dramatic skill. He has been music director for Clonter for the last several years and its achievements under his care have been exceptional.



Further performances on 22, 24, 26 and 28 July.

Clonter Opera's set for La Bohème

Friday, 13 July 2018

Review of Tisbe, from La Serenissima, Buxton International Festival


Just a concert performance of an obscure baroque opera, it seemed – but Tisbe turns out to be one of the serendipities of the 2018 Buxton Festival.

It’s by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, and I hadn’t heard of him either. Worked in Munich, Stuttgart and Württemberg in the second decade of the 18th century, apparently, and charmed the Germans with his Italian styles. This is quite a big piece for its time, with an orchestra including horns, oboes and recorders, and a chorus as well as four protagonists – the indefatigable Adrian Chandler has created a performing edition from a score that looks slightly incomplete (judiciously filling the obvious instrumental gaps from Brescianello’s other works) and may never have even been performed originally.

The story, though, is definitely one we know: Pyramus and Thisbe, told by Ovid and Boccaccio and memorably rendered by the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s all there, though with Italian names: the lovers agree to rendezvous at Ninny’s tomb (Nino’s in this case), Tisbe is a bit late, Piramo finds her veil with blood on it and concludes a lion got her, stabs himself but takes his time a-dying and lasts long enough for them to be together for a final farewell.

The only thing you don’t get is a singing wall, but the other two characters are Licori, a shepherdess, and Alceste, a virile young man who fancies Tisbe at the start and whom Licori tries to persuade to fancy her.

Musically, it’s all high-quality as you would expect: Julia Doyle (Tisbe), Robert Murray (Piramo), Hilary Summers (Licori) and Morgan Pearse (Alceste) are first-class soloists and the chorus and band are excellent, too.

What gives it extra attractiveness is the acting ability of all the singers (including the chorus, who collectively become the lion for a lively showdown with bold Piramo), and the direction of Mark Burns. ‘Concert performance’ hardly does his work justice – it’s semi-staged (although the band takes about half the stage space) and full of inventiveness and humour. A most lamentable comedy … or should that be comical lament?

Either way it is a good evening out. Whether it qualifies as ‘the finest baroque opera ever’, as Adrian Chandler suggests in a programme note, is perhaps more debatable. I did find Brescianello’s endless sequential repetitions became a bit tedious in the end. But Licori’s ‘L’amare è follia’ was good fun and her ‘Cari orrori’ had a lovely affekt of wistful regret; Piramo’s ‘Pace, pace’ was a fine show-off aria, and Tisbe’s ‘Fiero leon’ likewise full of life.



Repeated on 17th July.


Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Review of Alzira, Buxton International Festival


Alzira completes the trilogy of early Verdi operas performed at the Buxton Festival in recent years under Elijah Moshinsky’s direction. In Giovanna D’Arco in 2015, and last year Macbetto (the original 1847 version), he showed his awareness of human and relationship tensions in Verdi’s work and brought them clearly to the fore.

He also made use of video projection and sound effects to evoke the scenarios. With Russell Craig as designer and Stanley Orwin-Fraser as video designer again, we have impressive results this year, too.

The story (based on Voltaire) is about Incas rebelling against their Spanish conquerors several centuries ago. Moshinsky’s brought it up to date and made it show guerilla fighters harassing a present-day (or near present-day) Peruvian government. The heroine (title role) is in lover with the peasants’ leader, Zamoro, but is captured by government forces and mercilessly used by their leader Gusmano: he forces her to agree to marry him in order to save the life of Zamoro. In the end Gusmano gets his just deserts, and before he dies he has a (rather unconvincing) change of heart and forgives his enemies.

Moshinsky and his team see themes of nature and innocence versus power and cruelty in this, and the projections show the beauty of the jungle as a contrast to the stifled atmosphere of government: they also set a few scenes by using the small side-title screens and remind us of the human cost of political violence with what looks like authentic news footage.

The opera is Verdi’s shortest and least often performed: this is the first fully staged version in the UK. It does not have the depth of much other Verdi, but has a concision of construction and kaleidoscopic variety of mood almost akin to fast-cut movie direction, and these mean it has much to offer still.

The reason it doesn’t often get put on is probably to do with Cammarano’s plot. But there are some thundering good tunes (with several marches and a drinking song), and with retiring artistic director Stephen Barlow conducting again, plus a strong cast and well-resourced company (a bigger chorus than Buxton’s often managed historically), the musical results are first-class. It’s stirring stuff.

Kate Ladner (Alzira) has strength and stamina in her voice and expresses tenderness and courage rapidly alternating. Jung Soo Yun cuts the right dash as Zamoro and is a very fine tenor. James Cleverton makes Gusmano as believable as probably anyone could, while singing with distinction, while Graeme Danby brings maturity and experience to Gusmano’s father, Alvaro.


Jung Soo Yun and Kate Ladner in Verdi's Alzira

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review of The Daughter of the Regiment, Buxton International Festival


The Buxton Festival has often been at its best when it has balanced high drama with comedy in its operatic offerings. This year, with two heavyweight pieces as its in-house productions, it has wisely turned to Jeff Clarke and his Opera della Luna to make up the fun quotient.

They do it splendidly. Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment is a classic light opera, but needs singers of real quality to do it justice. The famous tenor aria with the nine high Cs (‘Ah! mes amis’) is in it, for one thing, and there are some superb soprano showpieces, too, and a clever trio.

But for Opera della Luna adaptation is the name of the game. Clarke has not only got John Longstaff to reduce the score – the chorus is all-male here, and three of the six of them double in other roles – but he’s re-written the book completely.

‘The Regiment’ is no longer a section of the French army operating in the rural Tyrols, but a desert-based Harley-riding biker gang in California, USA, and Sulpice is their president. The Marquise is now Los Angeles based social climber Marsha Berkenfield (she lives in West Hollywood, of course), and the Duchess of Crakentorp is heiress Dulcie Crackenthorpe. Marie, the daughter of the title, is still a lovely girl brought up by the good-hearted guys of The Regiment, and it’s all about her falling for Tonio – now an Hispanic immigrant, rather than a peasant – and then turning out, finally, to be the long unacknowledged daughter of Marsha.

It’s all great fun and very cleverly matches the essence of the original. The dialogue is all-American (and they’ve had dialect coach Matthew Bloxham to help them get it right), and the set (Graham Wynne) looks like an Old El Paso chili chips packet, plus cactuses.

This is a second incarnation for Opera della Luna’s interpretation of the piece, as they did it four years ago for the Iford Festival, but I fancy (from the stills of that version) that this is a fuller staging. And it is a hugely entertaining gem of a show.

What makes it most satisfying is the quality of the singing. Jesús Álvarez has got the top Cs – he doesn’t belt them out like a circus act, rather weaves them into the aria’s melody line, but they’re all there.

And his Marie is Elin Pritchard, both a great comedy actress and a wonderful soprano, who both Opera North’s and Buxton Festival’s audiences know well. Her finale aria to the first act (‘Yes, we must part’) was lovely, and she made a delight of the ‘singing lesson’ in act two (which Clarke transforms to include some neat bowdlerizations beginning ‘I dreamt I dwelt …’ and ‘My tiny hand is …’).

The roles of Sulpice (Charles Johnston) and Marsha (Katharine Taylor-Jones) are character studies above all, but very finely done (and sung) here, and Robert Gildon made Hortensius the butler into a comedy cameo in his own right.  Toby Purser conducts the company, and a great little band, with skill.

The Daughter of the Regiment - Jesús Álvarez, Elin Pritchard and Charles Johnston


Monday, 9 July 2018

Review of Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Idomeneo is an opera that reveals its secrets only to the patient. Generally considered Mozart’s supreme creation in the ‘opera seria’ genre (in the formal Italian tradition), it is a long piece.

But there is a wonderful final act, when not only do we get the appearance of a sea monster but also the disembodied voice of Neptune and a near-mad scene – and then a final denouement, reconciliation and the triumph of humane and enlightened values over ignorance and fear.

The story is from the Trojan Wars, with King Priam’s daughter, Ilia, captive on Crete, loved by Idamante, son of king Idomeneo, whose army captured her … and Idamante is also loved by Elettra, Agamemnon’s daughter, who wants revenge.

Pretty straightforward as classical plotlines go, and of course it gives Mozart lots of scope for arias of passion and dramatic switches of tension.

But what about the sea monster (a judgment from Neptune, who is angry with Idomeneo and his whole nation for his failure to carry out his earlier vow to sacrifice the first living thing he saw on being delivered from a storm at sea – in fact his son)? And the disembodied voice?

Director Stephen Medcalf has come up with great practical solutions for staging these within the constraints of Buxton Festival opera production budget. The monster is seen in Idomeneo himself, in a kind of wild transformation on the lines of The Incredible Hulk (‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry …’). And the voice of Neptune comes as an oracular declaration, seen from Idomeneo’s lips but sung with echo effect off-stage.

There are other neat touches that give the outlandish story a kind of reality and bring it into the realms of psycho-drama. With a useful single set by Isabella Bywater (a two-sided building half submerged by sand … presumably the effect of a terrible sea-storm and maybe even global warming) and non-period military gear for the king, his son and other combatants, it takes on a timeless quality.

But this is also Buxton, where the music comes first. Nicholas Kok was in charge in the pit, the music was stylish and energy-filled, and the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus were both magnificent. 

Buxton did a concert performance of Idomeneo eight years ago, in Richard Strauss’s somewhat eccentric version (he wrote some syrupy music of his own into the Mozart score), but this is the first time we’ve had the original. That time the wonderful Paul Nilon took the title role, and this time he embodied it again. Almost everything depended on him, and he did not fail. Quite apart from the Hulk impression, he portrayed nobility and passion, and his ‘Fuor del mar’ aria captured a sense of survivor guilt as I think few others could. He never lost his ability to sing, and stay, in character.

Heather Lowe was an excellent Idamante, ardent and at times (rightly) piercing and powerful, and Rebecca Bottone sang with lovely tone and intonational precision – a little bit studied and static by comparison with her co-stars, perhaps, but always a joy to hear. Madeleine Pierard almost stole the show with her Elettra, particularly in her great Act two aria.

And the final act, with its ensembles and climactic sense, was, as I said, worth the wait.



Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review of Buxton Festival gala concert



It’s the 39th Buxton International Festival, and they like to get off to a flying start with a gala concert. With Lesley Garrett as both hostess and performer, plus the Northern Chamber Orchestra (led by Nicholas Ward and conducted by Nicholas Kok) in the pit, it could hardly fail to do that.

The music was a mix of favourite tunes from opera and operetta with generous scoops from musicals – ending with the fabulous Ice Cream Sextet from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (this time licked by 11 soloists) which was right on the button for a sweltering evening in the Peak District … normally a rare enough experience.

The NCO sounded great as a Broadway pit orchestra from the off with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band overture, and morphed into a precise and stylish opera ensemble for the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. One of the festival’s greatest assets in recent years has been this orchestra’s superb contribution to its music-making, and long may it continue.

But what I enjoyed most in the evening’s programme was the varied array of talent on offer from 11 soloist members of the Opera North Chorus. The company prides itself nowadays on engaging top performers in its chorus who can bring something distinctive to any role they’re asked to undertake, and boy did they shine in this programme of lively vignettes.

I’m glad to say I first heard Amy Freston sing when she was still training to be a dancer – and today she brings both skills to the stage brilliantly. ‘I could have danced all night’ (My Fair Lady) was made for her, and she led the troupe in many ways in ensemble numbers such as ‘That’s him’ (One Touch of Venus) and the Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld.

Nicholas Watts proved himself a charmer – and an accomplished siffleur – in ‘Johnny’s Song’ (Johnny Johnson), and Alexander Banfield was excellent in ‘Lonely House’ (Street Scene), as was Dean Robinson with ‘Some enchanted evening’ (South Pacific), but the real showstopper from the men came in ‘Wouldn’t you like to be on Broadway’ (Street Scene).

But for sheer stage presence and delivery, with virtuoso singing, precise in rhythm and pitch, as well as acting, the stand-out was Lorna James – another singer who I’m glad to say I saw early in her musical journey, at the RNCM, and rated very highly – with Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be gay’ (Candide).

The singers worked tirelessly, even contributing rarely heard vocal lines to the orchestra (and Nicholas Ward’s) Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, and Opera North’s Martin Pickard was a supreme piano accompanist.

Changing the atmosphere near the close with the sweetly soulful ‘My Ship’ (Lady in the dark), sung by Kathryn Walker, was a lovely stroke, and Lesley Garrett followed that with ‘If love were all’ (Bitter Sweet), Noel Coward’s sentimental number about the ‘talent to amuse’. Everyone on stage certainly had that, and the ability to inspire, too, with a final ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Carousel).


BELOW: Lesley Garrett, and Nicholas Ward leading the Northern Chamber Orchestra

  



Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert conducted by Ben Gernon with soloist Stefan Dohr


Another BBC Phil concert, another new concerto: this time the UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Horn concerto – written for its soloist, Stefan Dohr, who is, among other things, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The piece is four years old, which makes it a surprise that it’s taken so long to make its way over here. Maybe that’s because hardly anyone else can play it (it includes both bottom and top notes which are officially beyond the range of the instrument), but Rihm is certainly an advocate who could hardly be bettered.

Twenty minutes in length, it has some lovely, long Romantic-style melodic solo passages, and some harmonies so reminiscent of the 19th century they almost sound like pastiche. It’s not all like that, but there’s a tonal undertow to it, which may be slightly ironic – especially given the little burp of a ‘tonic’ note with which the soloist ends proceedings.

Structurally it’s discursive: varied and episodic, with the only really traditional signpost being a kind of solo cadenza … but it’s one that opts out of the standard display formula and has the soloist become less and less assertive. Rihm is very taken by the way the horn can make a ‘distant’ echo of its own sound, and sometimes (including that passage) it seems to be duetting with itself (at others with the oboe, muted trumpets, or other eloquent melodists).

So its very much an essay in tone qualities, with a little disruption of traditional expectations built in. A great vehicle for a great virtuoso, of course. But the horn is very hard to play and there just aren’t that many of them around.

Conductor of the concert was the BBC Philharmonic’s principal guest, Ben Gernon – characteristically in cool control, letting the musicians play to their strengths. With guest leader George Tudorache and a few guest principals, they made light work of Wagner’s overture to Rienzi, which opened the concert: warm G and D-string playing, respectively, from violins and cellos on the big ‘prayer’ tune, and a lot of fun in the rum-ti-tum marching music. It’s portentousness writ large, and probably best just carried off with swagger.

Gernon was also in his element with Berlioz’s arrangement of Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz (or Dance if you prefer). His less-is-more approach was fruitful and there was a great rhythmic bounce in it (he even hoodwinked the audience into clapping before it had finished).

Then it was Beethoven’s Symphony no 7. Ben Gernon is right on the trend for crisp and lively speeds for Beethoven (and had 41 string players – one more bass than you might expect – and modern timpani), and in the second, third and fourth movements everything paid off really well. In the opening, ensemble was slightly ragged, but once into the Vivace (and the transition was smooth) there was little to complain of … except that in this particular acoustic and with these particular rhythms you really have to abbreviate everything to get the clarity you need. But every movement got applause, which Beethoven would no doubt have fully expected.



Ben Gernon

Monday, 23 April 2018

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert conducted by Clemens Schuldt with soloist Leonard Elschenbroich


The world premiere of a cello concerto is a pretty rare event, and interesting, for one thing, just because there aren’t many of them around. New violin concertos seem to come along quite often – but a good new cello concerto must have a chance of digging out a real niche in the repertoire.

I think Mark Simpson’s new Cello concerto, his first piece written to commission by the BBC Philharmonic since he was made its Composer in Association, could be that good. It’s traditional in form: three movements, of which the middle one is slow (a lament, in the composer’s description). There’s also a slow and thoughtful unaccompanied cadenza in the final movement which, while it may not be as substantial as the solo movement in Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, has the role of recalling the mood of the slow movement and thus giving depth, as well as intimacy, to the whole piece.

It’s also a melodically led piece of writing, with a lot of ‘traditional’ harmony, and its structures are clear. Mark Simpson is an expert at writing huge and complicated textures for orchestra, and those are there, too – but usually with the role of making a contrast to the eloquent solo song of the cello. The orchestra includes a piano, which plays its own prominent part in some of the tutti episodes, and there’s percussion, too (an outburst near the beginning which doesn’t lead to anything in particular but is there perhaps to offer some alternative ways of expressing intensity which are to be rejected.

The harmonic stasis of the ‘lament’ movement – strings alone, in almost a high ‘pedal’ effect, coupled with slowly changing overtones – and the keening sound of the cello solo itself, in the higher regions of its range, made that the most impressive section for me. It contains a very big climax, too – a marker you can hardly fail to spot – and Simpson gives his soloist some technically demanding multi-stopping for good measure.

Mark Simpson says the third movement has a ‘dancing momentum’, and there are certainly pulsing sounds in the orchestra, though whether dancing was quite the effect that came over in this performance I’m not sure. But the cadenza brings back the mood of meditation, before a final gesture akin to a small rocket taking off – an effective finish and no mistake.

Leonard Elschenbroich was the skilful and passionate soloist in this first outing, and the piece was written for him and so bears something of his personal stamp – all very much to the good, in my view. The conductor was Clemens Schuldt, a young man whose command of the score and sympathy with it was never in doubt.

The rest of his programme was Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration – richly rendered, with bold contrasts of mood, by the BBC Philharmonic under the leadership of Yuri Torchinsky – and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1. That also boasted vivid contrasts and high-energy playing of the composer’s characteristic ‘Keystone Cops’ style music – but the sustained intensity of feeling in the slow movement was if anything more rewarding, and the finale included another lovely cello solo, this time from the orchestra’s own principal, Peter Dixon.

  

Leonard Elschenbroich