Thursday, 24 December 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 24 December 2015

STEVEN ISSERLIS is a man of many parts – and, as a cello soloist, no stranger to Manchester.

He lives in London, has been awarded the CBE, and appears regularly with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors as well as giving solo recitals and playing in chamber music.

He’s also written books for children about the lives of the great composers – Why Beethoven Threw The Stew and its sequel, Why Handel Waggled His Wig – plus three musical stories for children: Little Red Violin, Goldiepegs And The Three Cellos, and Cindercella.

You may remember his glorious playing in the premiere of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil at the BBC Proms in 1989 – or more recently (and nearer home) in Tavener’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, with the BBC Philharmonic in the Manchester International Festival of 2013, or in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote with the BBC Phil and Juanjo Mena just two years ago.

On January 8 he’s back at the Bridgewater Hall, this time with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and its music director, Joshua Bell. They’re playing the Brahms concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. Steven will also play Dvořák’s Silent Woods with the orchestra, and Josh will play Elegy by Schumann – a rare item Steven ‘discovered’.

The two are old friends. “I’ve hardly ever done the Brahms ‘double’ with anyone else,” he says. “In fact we’ve been playing it together for 30 years. He’s like a younger brother.

“For me the concerto is a piece to celebrate friendship – you’ve got to actually like the person you’re playing it with.

“It was written as a kind of peace offering from Brahms to Josef Joachim, the great 19th century violinist, after a rift between them.

“I’m very much looking forward to the Elegy, too. It’s the slow movement of Schumann’s violin concerto, with a coda by Britten – first played in a memorial concert given by Menuhin and Britten for Dennis Brain, the horn player. Its theme is one that Schumann said he felt had been dictated to him by angels.”

Steven comes from an incredibly musical family. His mother and grandfather were pianists – the latter was once refused the tenancy of a flat in Vienna by a 102-year-old landlady, on the grounds that her aunt had had a bad experience with another musician as tenant, who made a noise and spat on the floor.

The badly behaved tenant was Beethoven.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 18 December 2015

THERE’S still time to get that special CD for a music-lover, and here are some suggestions:


Mahler: Symphony no. 9. The Hallé, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (2 CDs, HLD 7541, mid-price)

This is based on the Bridgewater Hall performance of May, 2014 – one that I’ll not forget in a long time. It was a long, long journey, beginning and ending in stillness, but with two movements of intense rhythmic life at its centre, and the whole orchestra played with sustained concentration, achingly beautiful.


Elgar: Sea Pictures, Polonia, Pomp & Circumstance Marches 1-5. Alice Coote, the Hallé, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (HLL 7536, mid-price)

The great (RNCM-trained) mezzo soprano Alice Coote is incomparably wonderful in Elgar’s Sea Pictures song cycle, as we’ve heard in Manchester before. This recording, made at Hallé St Peter’s last year, captures her artistry perfectly, and for good measure you have vintage Hallé/Elder performances of Elgar in patriotic or martial vein.


Pierné: Orchestral works, vol. 2. BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena (Chandos CHAN 10871, full price)

A spin-off from the first set, which featured the fine virtuoso Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the Pierné piano concerto, this volume rounds up three more works for piano and orchestra and includes a couple of piano solos, too. Its best is the suave Scherzo-Caprice and the Ravel-like Paysages Franciscains – an interesting by-way to explore.


Nielsen: Complete symphonies. BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds (3 CDs, Chandos CHAN 10858(3), full price)

Storgårds’ Nielsen cycle in the summer this year at the Bridgewater Hall was one of the outstanding events of the year for me, and revelatory in performances of the less frequently encountered works, nos. 1, 3 and 5. They’re caught here in studio performances.


Donizetti: Rita. Katarina Karnéus, Barry Banks, Christopher Maltman, the Hallé, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (Opera Rara ORC50, full price)

This one-act operatic comedy is a little gem and if you haven’t discovered it before, now’s the time. It was the first by Sir Mark with the Hallé for the label of which he’s artistic director, and the star is undoubtedly the feisty and characterful mezzo, Katarina Karnéus, who (as I never cease reminding all who’ll listen) made her stunning professional operatic debut, in November 1993, in Ashton-under-Lyne.


Ryan Wigglesworth: Echo & Narcissus and other works. Claire Booth, Pamela Helen Stephen, Mark Padmore, Barnabás Kelemen, the Hallé, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth (NMC D213, full price)

A representative selection of the Hallé’s recently appointed principal guest conductor, and works of his own composition. Among them is the violin concerto, played by the soloist, Barnabás Kelemen, who gave the UK premiere of its revised version at the Bridgewater Hall early last year.


Gounod: La Colombe. Erin Morley, Javier Camarena, Michèle Losier, Laurent Naouri, the Hallé, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (2 CDs, Opera Rara ORC53, full price)

This rarely heard comic opera, about a would-be lover who has to choose between donating his pet bird to a countess or serving it up as dinner, was produced in English at the Buxton Festival in 2013 and was great fun. Sir Mark has recorded the original French (in summer this year) with a talented cast and, though the music is delightful and the orchestral playing wonderful, it loses a little in sound only.


Roger Fisher plays the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Parr Hall, Warrington (PHW, CD1, full price)

An issue based on a live recital from 2011, plus remastered earlier tracks, by the former organist of Chester Cathedral playing the north of England’s undoubtedly most precious pipe organ – the tonally unaltered 1870 work of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, now in Warrington’s Parr Hall. It’s all French music of the golden age, and the Choral no. 3 by Franck is absolutely superb.



Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Manchester Evening News review 11 December 2015

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall


THIS concert was like an oasis in the vast expanse of Christmas tweeness – some serious music, enjoyable nonetheless, but with not a sleigh bell in sight.

It was also one of the first programmes in the Hallé series to live up fully to its in-and-out theme of Fate: it could hardly fail to, with a rare piece by Tchaikovsky called Fatum as the opener.

This was conducted by Harish Shankar, the Royal Northern College of Music’s present junior fellow in conducting, and he made a very impressive Hallé debut indeed. There was power and intensity in the opening and close, refinement and beauty in the more lyrical episodes, and electricity in tone and phrasing as the music grew to its climaxes.

In truth it’s more like a ballet score without a ballet than a symphonic movement, but that gave scope for tension, drama and energy, and Harish Shankar’s style, economic on gesture but effective, gives an orchestra what it needs and nothing else.

Sir Mark Elder completed the Fate connection with Rachmaninov’s third symphony, in which the Hallé were as responsive to him as they had been earlier. It has a glorious  first movement melody that sticks in your head, and in this account they made it soar and glide and indeed gain considerable urgency, and the emotional peaks and contrasts were highlighjted with a sure hand.

There’s a struggle between pessimism and optimism in both the second and third movements of this symphony, handled here with assurance and awareness of ambiguity: the march in mid slow movement had a blend of the demonic and the determined, and the Grim Reaper made his appearance with a death rattle in the finale, despite its exciting ending.

Between those two works we had a burst of sunshine, as Stephen Hough played the solo in Beethoven’s first piano concerto, with Sir Mark at the helm. It was everything you would expect a Hough performance to be – fluency and ice-cool clarity coupled with dynamic contrast, passion and beauty. Flamboyancy is not Stephen Hough’s style, but his sheer intelligence made the music more beautiful and thrilling than ever.


Robert Beale

Friday, 11 December 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 11 December 2015

IT’S that time of year … when everything goes Christmas-crazy, and people do funny things like dressing up in 18th century costume to perform baroque masterpieces.

We have our own wigs-and-knee-breeches outfit in the north west – the 18th Century Concert Orchestra, founded by former BBC Philharmonic double bassist Michael Escreet 15 years ago.

It includes members past and present of the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Baroque Soloists, the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic, and is known as an advocate of less well-known repertoire as well as the established favourites.

They go for the whole Augustan rig – not just the wigs and breeches, but wooden music desks and even specially tailored shoes. And it’s not just dressing up. They perform on period instruments, and by candlelight.

Real candles, too. “A candlemaster tends the candles throughout,” Michael tells me, “while the orchestra plays concertos and suites for strings, trumpet and oboes by baroque composers including Handel, Corelli, and Purcell – which may occasionally be punctuated by amusing readings from contemporary texts.”

Concertos, arias and dance suites are interspersed with informative and witty anecdotes drawn from 18th-century histories, journals and treatises.

The 18th Century Concert Orchestra is appearing at Christ Church, West Didsbury, on December 16.

Three days later the same venue has another Christmas concert, this time by top choral group Manchester Chamber Choir. It’s titled Lux Arumque: An American Christmas, and made up of festive music and readings from the ‘other side of the Pond’. Principal conductor Jonathan Lo is in charge.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 4 December 2015

EVERYBODY’S doing it – showing the film of The Snowman with an orchestra playing live music. The Hallé have it on December 22 and 23 (twice each day) at the Bridgewater Hall, alongside a new piece by Steve Pickett for audience and orchestra called Dinosaurumpus.

And, in many other places in the north of England, The Snowman will be shown by Carrot Productions, run by Glossop-based freelance bassoonist Rachel Whibley (managing director) and BBC Philharmonic double bass player Daniel Whibley (artistic director and presenter).

Last year they showed it to over 15,000 people at 27 venues. This time it’s got even bigger, with 33 performances including Halifax, Southport, Chester, Blackpool, Sheffield, Bolton (Victoria Hall, December 15), Hull, Bradford and Warrington (Parr Hall, December 20), school shows in Buxton, Derby, Chesterfield, Burton-on-Trent and Matlock, plus a special free one for the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital on Sunday December 6. Conductor will be Steve Magee.

In the Carrot Productions’ tour of the film there’s an extra novelty – one by a Manchester musician. He’s Tom Scott, brother of Bridgewater Hall resident organist Jonathan Scott, and a visual artist as well as a musical one (he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester University and is now a lecturer as well as piano soloist).

Tom has created an animated film to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. He has already transformed The Carnival Of The Animals in the same way, and his animations have been used in classrooms and live concerts all over the world.

Tom says: “In the Nutcracker Suite, most movements represent different characters and objects. So, as the Chinese Dance has lots of pizzicato string sounds I imagined this could be tea pickers plucking tea leaves; and the tambourine in the Arabian Dance became the hiss of a snake, while the musical flourishes in the March became decorations flying up into the air and landing on a Christmas tree.

“There are also instruments played by the animated characters which represent the actual instruments played by the orchestra.”

The Scott brothers are a remarkable pair. Each has a career of his own, and they also appear as The Scott Brothers Duo. Born in Manchester, they studied at Chetham’s and the RNCM. Both were brass players, too – Tom did trumpet as his second study at Chet’s, and Jonathan played trombone.

There’s a film on YouTube about the making of the Nutcracker Suite film –



Manchester Evening News and Manchester Theatre Awards review 4 December 2015

STREET SCENE  Royal Northern College of Music


IF ever there was a show suited to the strengths of the Royal Northern College of Music’s music theatre tradition, it’s Kurt Weill’s Street Scene.

Written in 1947 and described as a ‘Broadway opera’, it’s a musical that pictures life in a New York tenement – and on the street outside – on two sweltering summer days and nights. The dramatic climax comes when a jealous husband murders his wife.

There is a whole series of overlapping, interlocking family and individual stories, with about ten major characters, and dozens of minor ones (not to mention the non-speaking ones): this cast list has 56 named roles in it, including canine Queenie, faultlessly played by Oscar the dog.

True to form, the RNCM has double-cast 38 of those parts for alternating dates, so almost 100 performers get their chance in the end. The costume department alone ought to get medals: the set (an extraordinary two-storey, four-apartment (plus cellar) construction that even invades the space normally used for the orchestra) and costume design is by Kate Ford.

Director Stefan Janski, bowing out as head of opera with his last full-length production for the college after nearly 30 years of inspiration and excellence, has made this one something to remember him by.

It’s not just in the clarity with which the complex plot lines are presented, the details of the acting or the masterly positioning of the massed scenes – not for the first time in a Janski production, the ‘police’ have to do real crowd control at times – but also in the little hints of a wider, densely populated world outside and the sense that, beyond this busy microcosm, life goes on.

And then there’s the choreography. Several numbers are song and dance ones, and RNCM choreographer Bethan Rhys Wiliam scores another triumph with the jitterbug of Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed, the ensemble number for new graduate Jenny (Wrapped In A Ribbon, Tied In A Bow), and the children’s Catch Me If You Can.

As tragedy overtakes the affectionate nationality stereotyping (Jewish, Swedish, Italian New Yorkers, and so on) the fun of the earlier numbers gives way to something much deeper. Weill picks up a vast variety of styles and welds them into one, and the singing and orchestral playing – all under the baton of Clark Rundell – are of superb quality throughout.

The RNCM’s singers are, of course, all people with big operatic voices to demonstrate, and they sound magnificent, but if there is one thing I was puzzled by it was the fact that, while using head mics skilfully, few seemed inclined to change their tone very much for the less operatic demands of musical theatre style. It can be done, as Opera North’s recent Kiss Me Kate cast showed.
The first cast to appear included some remarkably mature singers and some excellent acting. I can’t possibly mention everyone, but I have to pick out Joanna Harries, as Emma Jones, the warm-hearted wiseacre of the wives – her vivid Noo Joisey tones were a delight. Tenor Alexander Grainger has demonstrated his golden larynx at the RNCM before, and he grew in assurance in the character of young lover Sam; with Michaela Parry as his sweetheart Rose, their singing was outstandingly good.
Aidan Edwards has the physical presence to be a really impressive jealous murderer, as Frank, and, more importantly, a rich and pliable voice; Katie Lowe, another singer who’s done great things before, was magnificent as wife-victim Anna.
Daniel Upchurch and Sarah Foubert, as Italian ice-cream and music lover, Lippo, and his wife Greta, were beautiful actor-singers and made us all smile, and Christopher Littlewood revealed a distinguished tenor as young dad Daniel.
Georgia Gardiner and David Thomas got a Strictly-style ovation for their jitterbug, and they can really sing as well as dance! And I loved Rachel Abbott and Alice Gildea’s cameo as the two snobby, pram-pushing nursemaids.
Among the other cast Alexandra Lowe was wonderful as Rose, with a lovely What Good Would The Moon Be, and Kimberley Raw had the spoken accent as well as the singing quality in her Anna. Brian McNamee (Sam) has a voice that I think will go on to great things, and Graham McCusker nearly made a Tevye out of Abraham, while Ronald McCusker was another very likeable Lippo. James Berry and Jake Horler-Newsham also sound like excellent future prospects.
And Oscar the dog has clearly got the acting bug. By the time I saw his fourth performance, he had extended his skills not only to ad-lib movement but some vocalization, too.


Robert Beale

Monday, 30 November 2015

Manchester Evening News review 30 November 2015

LANG LANG  Bridgewater Hall


MANCHESTER had another chance to witness the phenomenon that is Lang Lang. There are few other classical artists who can fill the Bridgewater Hall today, but his following is faithful and devoted – the gales of applause and final standing ovation showed that.

His playing was, as ever, absolutely stunning in technical skill and constantly challenging in its interpretative curiosity. It was quite daring, really, to begin with Tchaikovsky’s 12-part The Seasons. It’s not his greatest music – but it’s very characteristic of a composer full of the feeling of later Romanticism: sentimental at times, but often dramatic and occasionally inspired.

Lang Lang responds to the dramatic – that was obvious from the January movement onwards. He also loves the chance to play in big, bravura style – we heard that in February, September and November.

And often he can change the whole emotional content of a piece from what you might expect, without any deviation from the score, by using its rhythms, phrasing and cadences in a novel way. He turned August into a jazzy extravaganza with emphatic syncopations, earning mid-piece applause in its own right.

One thing I’m right with him on is his rhythmic freedom. That was the way pianists played for most of the 19th century and it’s a legacy of later ‘correctness’ that everything should be metronome-regular.

Bach, of course, is a different language. He played the Italian Concerto with bouncing rhythms in the outer movements and a little eccentricity – he was having fun – and an exemplarily eloquent arioso between them.

Finally he moved into some of the greatest piano music written, in all four of Chopin’s Scherzos. Most piano soloists tackle just one to show off: he powered through them, with often exciting and also meltingly beautiful melodic playing, sometimes weird in its interpretation of the written expression marks, but always holding the audience in its spell.

The last two held the best playing of the evening, showing affection for the music, not just showmanship, incredible virtuosity, and an ability to find beauties in the writing that even Chopin may not have suspected he’d created.


Robert Beale

Manchester Evening News and Manchester Theatre Awards review 29 November 2015

CARMEN Opera House

ELLEN KENT’S touring opera company was back at the Opera House for two nights and offered two of the repertory ‘standards’ she has brought so often in the past. I saw Carmen (Tosca came first) and it delivered in full the audience satisfaction that is always her big selling point.

There’s one set, a hemispherical classical-style entrance to something, that does duty for every scene in both operas (a bit incongruous when we’re supposed to be in Pastia’s bar in the second act of Carmen, or out in the countryside in the third), but it helps reflect the voices into the theatre.

The company is essentially very small, but the hard-working group of chorus singers are accompanied by adult and child walk-ons from Stagecoach who manage to fill the stage quite effectively in the final scene outside the corrida, and the costumes (in that scene in particular) are colourful.

There are just eight principal voices, as Alyona Kistenyova did a series of quick-changes to represent both Micaëla (the sweetly devoted girl from tragic protagonist Don José’s village) and Frasquita (one of Carmen’s soldier-teasing, contraband-assisting, card-playing friends. She has a powerful soprano voice to top the ensembles and deserves much praise for versatility. And Irina Melnic (Mercedes) revealed a lovely voice in the Act 3 card game.

Baritone Iurie Gisca was also double-cast, as Morales the army corporal and Escamillo the toreador, and delivered both roles with vigour.

And the two leading characters, Carmen and Don José, were very well sung and (Carmen, particularly, by Liza Kadelnik) well portrayed. She is from the Romanian National Opera and made a sensuous and vocally ample gypsy temptress.

Ellen Kent’s mainly Moldovan performing resources have been augmented on this tour (as fate and politics would have it) by some experienced artists from the Ukraine – Alyona Kistenyova was with the Odessa company, which has toured here in its own right with Ellen Kent before, and tenor Vitalii Liskovetskyi, our Don José, is from the Kiev company. He was one of the best  singers of the role I’ve heard in these productions, holding his pitch well in his duet with Micaëla in Act 1, and in his Flower Song in Act 2, which are often slippery places for singers.

Valeriu Cojocaru (Zuniga) and Vladimir Dragos (Le Dancaire) did their familiar stentorian stuff.

Conductor Vasyl Vasylenko is another Ukrainian – a music director without a company at present, as he hails from Donetsk – and he made a very positive contribution, with disciplined and sometimes even lyrical playing coming from the orchestra (though what the timpanist was on bemused me at times).

When it came to the plotting quintet in Act 2, he let them rush through (as always seems to be the case with eastern European companies), but there was much to admire, the Prelude to the final act in particular.

Carmen returns to Manchester Opera House on March 19 (Buxton March 20), with Die Fledermaus on March 18.


Robert Beale

Friday, 27 November 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 27 November 2015

OPERA director Stefan Janski brings his last full-length production as Head of Opera at the Royal Northern College of Music to the stage on December 2 (and five more performances – December 4, 6, 7, 10 and 12).

And it’s clear he’s going out on a high.

Stefan will have been with the RNCM for 30 years when his retirement date comes next summer. He’s directed over 40 complete shows there, and around 700 staged excerpts from the opera repertoire.

And his swan song is a Broadway musical from 1946 – Street Scene, by Kurt Weill – though Weill called it his ‘American opera’ and it’s now considered a classic like Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess.

Spectacular, it seems, is hardly going to be an adequate word for it. Stefan, renowned for his multiple casting and brilliantly organized crowd scenes in previous productions, says he has over 66 named roles in his version of the story (based on an Elmer Rice play) of 24 hours in summertime, in a crowded tenement block and the street outside, in the Big Apple.

And, true to RNCM tradition, many of those are double-cast. Oh, and there’s one dog in this cast, too: little Oscar, who is having his own training sessions, getting used to hearing big voices singing at close quarters …

“I’m using the whole of the undergraduate second year,” says Stefan. “Part of their training is in chorus singing, and some of them have cameo roles as well.”

The musical is set in a two-tier tenement block, with eight apartments opening on to the ‘street’ of the title. The orchestra pit, kindly vacated by conductor Clark Rundell and his happy band (who will be upstage, behind a gauze), becomes the basement storey, and the stage proper the upper one, so people in the front row of the audience are looking right into the action.

“This show has got everything,” Stefan says: “Emotional repression and tension, heat, sadness, the quest for true affection, the problems of immigrants, a love triangle, and tragedy and the blues. But optimism is what it’s really about. There are some stunning numbers.”

It’s being modernised to the extent of including boogie-woogie jive, rather than tap-dancing, in one number. There’s a violin lesson on stage, and an Ice Cream Sextet.

The RNCM team includes choreographer Bethan Rhys Wiliam, set and costume design by Kate Ford, and technical direction and lighting by Nick Ware.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Manchester Evening News review 23 November 2015

MANCHESTER CAMERATA  Royal Northern College of Music


THE Camerata always sounds at its best in the intimate and lively acoustic of the Royal Northern College of Music concert hall. This performance had two considerable extra buzz factors: Giovanni Guzzo as leader-director-soloist and Gabriela Montero as piano soloist and improviser extraordinaire.

He brought his own genius for style and intensity to the task. It’s what we remember from his time as the orchestra’s regular leader, and even in such a subdued piece of writing as Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (which to my mind is really rather longer than it needs to be) he galvanized the sound as it reached the top of its emotional arch.

Piazzolla’s The Four Season Of Buenos Aires was probably far more on his wavelength, brimming with South American rhythmic life, and with his solos much enhanced by Hannah Robert’s own on the cello. The weather sequence in Buenos Aires is obviously very different from the kind Vivaldi knew in his Four Seasons, but the echoes of that and other warhorse pieces are great fun.

The finale of the concert was Britten’s Variations On A Theme By Frank Bridge. Guzzo had his musicians really enjoying their virtuoso ensemble playing here, with richly burnished violin tone in the Romance, an Aria Italiana which sounded like a very convivial night out in a trattoria, big bravura in the Wiener Walzer, and the quizzical endings of the Funeral March and Fugue And Finale subtly done.

But that was not all this programme had to offer. Gabriela Montero is a phenomenon in her own right. She was the highly accomplished soloist in Mozart’s piano concerto no. 14 in E flat K449, her approach gelling with fellow-Venezuelan Guzzi’s in the bouncy final movement, and a real sense of dialogue with the orchestra strings emerging in the slow movement.

For the first movement cadenza she rattled off a very stylish sequence in free fantasia style, but that was just a foretaste of what came after the concerto. Her trademark spot of asking the audience to suggest tunes from which she can improvise resulted in two instant creations: the first a rhapsodic expansion of the first phrases of McCartney’s Yesterday which began somewhere between Chopin and Rachmaninov with, finally, a touch of Gershwin – still twice as good as some of the stuff peddled by populist Italian pianists which they conceive to be original compositions.

The second was on the Marseillaise. I was afraid someone would suggest that, because it could have brought out mawkishness and shallow emotion, but she began in severely contrapuntal style, worked her way from Mozart to Beethoven and finally, in a thunder of double octaves, gave it an exposition Liszt would have been proud of.


Robert Beale

Manchester Evening News review 21 November 2015

BBC PHILHARMONIC  Bridgewater Hall and live Radio 3


A CONCERTO for drum kit and orchestra? Sounds like the ideal formula for classical music to get down with the kids and bridge the gap with popular culture.

Well, Mark Anthony Turnage’s Erskine – Concerto For Drum Set And Orchestra (named in honour of its soloist, Peter Erskine), receiving its UK premiere in Manchester under principal guest conductor John Storgårds, didn’t exactly pull in the crowds.

But then, they may have all been listening on Radio 3 instead. I wish.

Turnage’s music is attractive to those who like complicated sounds as well as modern rhythms, but it isn’t popular in style. Its fans are classical cognoscenti – music critics and suchlike.

I found the concerto constantly fascinating, certainly never boring. As a conceptual construction, I think it has weaknesses. Much of the time Erskine (the man) was drumming along with the orchestra as he might with a band in more conventional style. Then, every so often, it all stopped and he launched into a free solo – not exactly the kind of relationship between soloist and the rest that ‘concerto’ normally implies.

Admirable aspects of it were the sly send-up of ‘cool’ dance music in the Habanera movement, the exposition of the drum kit’s gentler sounds in the Blues, and the brilliantly written rhythm-only fugue for soloist and three other percussionists that begins the finale (though it’s hardly a first: Ernst Toch did something similar with speaking voices in his Geographical Fugue).

The concerto was placed amid a sequence of pieces designed to catch the idea of ‘joy’. Appropriately in the year of his death, Joybox by John McCabe (premiered by the Phil at the Proms in 2013), was the opener. It builds its complexities wittily and contrapuntally and, rather like Ravel’s La Valse, makes a mid-course gear-change into controlled chaos.

There were three Stravinsky pieces from the 1940s: Ode, Scherzo A La Russe and the hilarious Circus Polka. The first included music originally designed for an outdoor film scene score and curiously reminiscent of Walton’s outdoor music for Henry V (written about the same time); the other two were lively relaxations.

Ives’ The Unanswered Question came into play as a contrast, I suppose, but keeping on the American theme of the season. Its atmospheric strings (led by Yuri Torchinsky) and stark trumpet and flutes altercation, were potent as ever.

But the final item – Antheil’s ‘Joyous’ Symphony (no. 5) was one of the most joyless pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s easy on the ear, and has a thrilling speed-up to the end of the first movement, but it’s also sentimentally tawdry, repetitive and trite. Pity that was the best example of musical joy they could think of.


Robert Beale

Friday, 20 November 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 20 November 2015

THE silent La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc, made by Robert Dreyer in 1928, is seen today as one of the greatest films ever.

It’s to have a showing at the Royal Northern College of Music on November 24th with live musical accompaniment by medieval music specialists The Orlando Consort, in a presentation that has been a highlight of music festivals around the country this year.

Dressed all in black, with small earpieces in their ears and the glow of two laptops casting ghostly shadows on their faces, Orlando will look more like Kraftwerk c.1975 than an early-music group.

But they say: “To musicians like ourselves, familiar with repertoire from the medieval period, it was a small imaginative leap to hear the background music to several of the scenes in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.

“It’s music which Joan herself may have heard, notably in the scene where she is taunted and tempted by the staging of the Catholic service, before it is suddenly terminated. “Dreyer’s parallel between the passions of Christ and Joan immediately suggested texts such as Ave Verum Corpus. At the moment when Joan’s body is bled by the doctors, we are singing (in Latin) the words ‘whose pierced side flowed with water and blood’.

“As an unlikely straw crown is thrust on her head by mocking English soldiers, the audience hears the Agincourt Song, musical triumphalism that celebrates the famous English victory some 16 years earlier.

“And when the crowd riots, the medieval motet – polyrhythmic and polytextual – provides the perfect underscoring of violence and confusion.”

The two 1928 premieres of the film (in Copenhagen and Paris) each had specially composed scores, though Dreyer, like most directors of the time, had no say in what the music was like.

Since then works by a variety of musicians – from Nick Cave to J S Bach – have accompanied screenings, and the score for the Paris premiere is still occasionally performed.

But Orlando Consort’s a-cappella version is the first in which real medieval songs, composed in the saint’s lifetime of c. 1412 to 1431, have accompanied the film.

There is more sacred than secular music to choose from, but, say Orlando, many poignant, heartbreaking secular songs do survive.

“In our soundtrack, these serve as expressions of Joan’s suffering, and underline a frequent parallel in the courtly love tradition between depictions of the Virgin Mary and the perfect object of desire.”

Friday, 13 November 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 13 November 2015

WHEN Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero appeared solo at the Bridgewater Hall last year, the most amazing thing – as well as her mastery of classical repertoire – was the last part.

She improvized three dazzling pieces on ideas contributed then and there by the audience. She likes to do it whenever she can, conjuring new creations out of thin air with fluency and bravura that would be the envy of many who’ve practised their music for years.

She’s appearing as soloist with Manchester Camerata and violinist Giovanni Guzzo at the Royal Northern College of Music on November 22 (3pm), and her job is first to play the popular Mozart piano concerto in E flat (no. 14).

But after that she’ll improvize on themes suggested by the audience. Her ability is a remarkable gift, not so much the fruit of training as innate: something most people would call a kind of genius.

She was actually told not to do it by one of her classical teachers. But when she met Martha Argerich, the great Argentinian piano virtuosa, in 2001, she had her moment of revelation.

“She said to me, ‘You have a unique gift, and you need to share it with the world.’ From that point on I’ve been improvizing in all my recitals.”

I asked her what is in her mind as she makes her instant creations. “When I’m doing it, I’m just allowing music to go through my body,” she says. “It’s almost as if I’m witnessing what I’m playing just like the audience. It seems as if part of my brain shuts down. And a lot of my improvizations are very, very fast. I seem to kick into a different gear, neurologically.”

She’s got evidence for that: she’s been taking part in a medical study to compare what goes on in her brain when she improvizes with its state when she plays a prepared work.

Gabriela began piano lessons at four and gave her first concerto at eight.  Later she got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London and won third prize in the Chopin Competition in 1995.

Today, married to Irish opera singer Sam McIlroy, she has a new home in Barcelona, and a new stage in her career, with rapturous receptions from public and press. But she says: “Applause never meant much to me. It’s really about the reasons for dedicating my life to music.”

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Manchester Theatre Awards and MEN review of Opera North's Jenufa, The Lowry

The Archers it ain’t. Janáček’s everyday story of countryfolk is about the ostracization of an unmarried mother, her obsessive and religion-bound foster parent, and infanticide. So much for the Romantic dream of village life.

The psychology of the female characters is what the opera, Jenůfa, is about: the two men in her life, though important singing roles, are little but ciphers. Opera North’s 20-year-old production, by Tom Cairns (who also designed it) is one from their vintage period of English-language performances and none the worse for that. Screened surtitles, now universally used, might seem superfluous in one sense but even the best singers are not always 100 per cent audible against Janáček’s orchestrations.

I’ve seen this production twice before (1995 and 2002) and each time it’s had a cast of remarkable stature. Christopher Purves had a bit-part in 2002!

This time, though, they have even bettered the past. Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg – unforgettable as the ageless Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case three years ago – was an extraordinarily youthful Jenůfa, and her European voice quality befits the character better than the American and English singers who have taken the role before, however skilfully. She was a young woman whose ‘fall’ caused her shame, bewilderment and awakening at the same time.

Susan Bickley sang the foster mother (the Kostelnička her formal title, as a kind of Ena Sharples of the village community) with unfailing power and beauty, and even managed to evoke a few pangs of sympathy for her desperate solution to the baby problem (though not many – she is the baddie of the story, and her deed is discovered when the baby she drowned in the stream emerges, preserved, after winter’s ice has melted).

Elizabeth Sikora also sang and characterized remarkably as the grandmother of the family. The two half-brothers, Števa and Laca, are both tenor parts requiring exceptional powers, and Laca has much the most attractive music, as befits his character as the one who stands by Jenůfa even though she gets pregnant by Števa (perhaps it is a bit like The Archers after all …). Opera North have a very good young tenor here in David Butt Philip, who I’m pleased to see is an alumnus of the Royal Northern College of Music.

The production itself seemed oddly abstract 20 years ago, and of course its method of framing the scenes with evocative minimalist shapes and images has become much more a la mode now. Its fierceness, though, does ally itself to the surging power of Janáček’s score, as the rustic tragedy plays out.

Manchester Theatre Awards and MEN review of Opera North's The Barber of Seville, The Lowry

It’s a 29-year-old production but it hardly shows. Giles Havergal’s staging of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is still one of the best in Opera North’s cupboard, and it was good to see it dusted off again at The Lowry.

Imagining it as a performance by a travelling troupe in 19th century Italy (with ‘audience’ on stage to lead the applause at the right times, and become the chorus where necessary) was always a clever idea, and it means we observers can laugh both with, and occasionally at, the cavortings on stage.

Those are good value, too. The cast is a mixture of experience and youth, with the comedy led by Eric Roberts as Dr Bartolo (I can hardly imagine anyone else doing it) and Alastair Miles as Don Basilio, both masters of their craft. The English translation (Robert David MacDonald) gives Roberts funny lines which he exploits to the full (‘I love it when she’s angry’ … ‘I just cannot believe it’) and he presents his musical highspots to great effect (despite seeming momentarily to hesitate in Can You Offer Such Excuses).

The richly coloured voice of Katie Bray, as Rosina, shows that the young-and-up-and-coming members of the cast are of exceptional quality this time around. She sings Both The Singer And The Song (Una voce poco fa) wonderfully, and likewise in the lesson scene – and she can get a laugh with just a facial expression, as she does when her true love turns out to be the very eligible young Count Almaviva.

Nicholas Watts, in that role, took a few minutes to get into his stride but was singing brilliantly in the second act, and acting effectively.

But the discovery of the night is surely Gavan Ring as Figaro, a young Irish baritone who seems made for the role. He sings with assurance and catches the comedy opportunities without exaggeration.

Victoria Sharp’s Berta may not have more than one chance to shine as soloist, but she really proved her worth in topping the ensemble numbers with ringing tone.

Credit, too, of course, to Russell Craig’s set and costume design, which is one of the delights of this show.

Under Stuart Stratford’s direction, the performance got off to a slightly sticky start, with a little rhythmic unease in the overture and a touch of the perennial Lyric Theatre problem of keeping stage and pit together, but this was very soon overcome. The final act one sextet (Spellbound And Thunderstruck) was particularly well paced and articulated, and in the second part everything gelled to make a very fine evening.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Manchester Evening News review 10 November 2015

JAMES GILCHRIST & ANNA TILBROOK  Royal Northern College of Music


TENOR James Gilchrist brought an enticing programme of three song cycles to the Royal Northern College of Music, appearing with accompanist Anna Tilbrook for Manchester Chamber Concerts Society.

I can’t think of any solo singer who commands more respect in the kind of music he chose – Schumann’s Liederkreis and Dichterliebe, and Vaughan Williams’ Songs Of Travel – and she is a peerless player in these styles, where the piano says as much as the voice in interpreting the poetry.

The 12 songs to words by Eichendorff that make up the Liederkreis are vintage dreamy Romanticism, composed by a young man deeply in love.

I admired the subtle moments of characterization Gilchrist introduced, the slightly manic hints he brought to Die Stille, the way the feeling of some songs was projected into their successors, the touches of horror and apprehension he expressed at the conclusions of In Der Fremde and Zwielicht, and the pacing and shaping of the whole circle of emotions.

The piano postludes shone with beauty, delicacy, pictorial vividness and the occasional flash of fire: in short, exemplary playing.

Vaughan Williams’ settings of Robert Louis Stevenson seem less neurotic and more straightforward than Schumann’s writing. But with James Gilchrist they have the same thoughtful, multi-layered treatment, with a passionate highpoint in Youth And Love, a gentle transformation of mood towards the end of the series, and a very English kind of wistfulness, superbly caught.

The recital finished with Schumann’s settings of Heinrich Heine’s poetry, probably the most well known German song cycle of all.

For those of us who first fell in love with this music and these words in the great recordings by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the version in tenor (rather than baritone) pitch inevitably means a loss of dignity and solidity, but Gilchrist’s rendering was still deeply thought and telling.

He gave agonized personality, rather than pent-up frustration, to the desperate centrepiece, Ich Grolle Nicht, and imbued much of the cycle with gentle longing – an atmosphere to which Anna Tilbrook contributed in full measure.



Robert Beale

Friday, 6 November 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 6 November 2015

NICHOLAS COLLON is one of the fastest rising stars in the business. Still only two years past his 30th birthday, he’s already co-founded an orchestra and seen it perform at the London Proms, has been appointed conductor of one of Holland’s top symphony orchestras – and is in demand as guest maestro.

He’s also got to know Manchester’s orchestras, conducting the Camerata in 2011 in a programme of American music, the BBC Philharmonic last December in Berlioz, Brahms and Stravinsky (he’s back with them next February), and recording music by Colin Matthews with the Hallé last year.

But now comes his concert debut with the Hallé – in the popular ‘Opus One’ series, performed three times over in the Bridgewater Hall (November 11 at 2.15pm and November 12 and 15 at 7.30pm).

He’s directing them in Richard Strauss’s tone poem about Till Eulenspiegel, Saint-Saëns’ cello concerto and Dvořák’s Silent Woods (both with soloist Jian Wang), and finally Beethoven’s dynamic Symphony no. 7.

Nicholas comes of musical stock. His grandmother was his piano teacher, and his mother his violin teacher. He joined the youth orchestra in his home county of Surrey … and the conducting bug bit.

“The first thing we ever played was the overture to Die Meistersinger by Wagner,” he says, “and at that point I think I first wanted to be a conductor.”

Educated at Eton, he went to Clare College, Cambridge as organ scholar and got his first real experience of musical direction. “It was a fabulous college to be at, musically. I conducted the choir and I learned a tremendous amount there.”

Aged 20, he founded the Aurora Orchestra with friend and Clare College contemporary Robin Ticciati (now making his own meteoric career).

“My way of learning conducting was simply to do it,” says Nicholas. “The orchestra began with people we knew from the National Youth Orchestra, Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music – there was a whole generation of musicians who created a real buzz.

“To begin with, we just put on a concert. I went round with cap in hand and about 60 people became our ‘friends’ and patrons. It all picked up from there – now we have a permanent structure.”

Nicholas has just been made principal conductor of the Residentie Orkester in The Hague, a job he’ll take up next winter season.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Manchester Evening News review 31 October 2015

THE SIXTEEN   Bridgewater Hall


OF course there are never actually 16 of them (or hardly ever). The singing strength of The Sixteen at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday was 18 – and they brought their orchestra as well, so we had good value for money.

It was a festival of Handel – mostly music they’ve performed here before, but none the worse for that. As conductor Harry Christophers has pointed out, Handel was a master of power through simplicity, as well as complex musical tapestries, and rarely lost the instinct for drama in his writing, even when it wasn’t for the stage.

The orchestra preluded each half of the concert with spritely playing on its own: The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba (from Solomon) first – in which you can almost hear the jangle of the bling as she approaches – and the sober overture to the tragic Jephtha.

The Chandos Anthem no. 11 (Let God Arise) was a new item for Sixteen fans at the Bridgewater Hall. Its final Alleluia chorus is almost a prototype for the fugal part of the more famous Hallelujah we all know (and equally jolly); its most glorious music the central section for solo soprano, Let The Righteous Be Glad, steered adroitly on its melodious way by Christophers’ beat.

The fourth of George II’s Coronation anthems, Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened, was a suitable precursor for the major work of the second part, Dixit Dominus.

It’s an early cantata from Handel’s Italian years, demanding a lot from any choir and orchestra, and was splendidly done. Christophers keeps the pulse moving along in the livelier sections, even when the music seems to gasp in its own moments of crisis, and he was well aware of the dramatic effects that come in the centre of the work, the vigour of its counterpoint, the stabbing rhythms that illustrate the Lord ‘smiting’ the bad guys, and the wonderful pastoral contrast that accompanies the thought of drinking refreshing water from a stream.

Finally he built a suitably weighty climax from the ebb and flow of the Gloria Patri. There was a good house and they went home suitably satisfied.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Manchester Evening News article 30 October 2015

NIKOLAJ ZNAIDER is a rare bird – equally well known, and gifted, as violinist and conductor. He’s appeared with the Hallé in both roles over recent years, and on November 5 he’s back to conduct – five years after he made his UK debut as a conductor with them.

That concert was notable for a very thoughtful account of a Tchaikovsky symphony (the fourth). This time he’s conducting another, the Manfred Symphony – so called because it’s story-telling music and Tchaikovsky didn’t give it a number.

But Znaider is full of enthusiasm for it. “Its subject is dark and deep,” he says (it’s based on a poem by Byron). “But he infuses it with an incredible imagination. Until I started working on it I didn’t have a real sense of how great it is.”

It’s still not as often programmed as the popular Tchaikovsky symphonies, though. “Perhaps that’s because it has a soft ending,” he suggests, half-ironically. “Some conductors want music with a loud ending, to make a big impression!”

Programme music (with a storyline) often gets a bad press now, but Znaider says the important thing with the Manfred is still its architecture. “It’s not difficult or untraditional – perhaps the problem with some interpreters is that every climax is played as if it’s the last – because then where do you go?”

His feeling for Tchaikovsky’s music is to do with balancing its nationalist-cum-emotional and its more traditional, even academic, content. “The challenge is that if one is not careful it can become banal and vulgar – you have to combine the emotionality and an understanding of the structure.”

He likes to speak of music’s ‘challenges’. When I asked about his dual career as solo violinist and conductor, the Danish-born son of Jewish parents (his father was an émigré from Poland to Israel) used the same language.

“Sometimes, as I plan my engagements, there’s a period that’s playing-heavy or one that’s too much filled with conducting – and though not conducting for three or four weeks is not a problem, not playing the violin for three or four weeks is … a challenge. I try to make sure that neither aspect gets over-weighted.”

In this concert his colleague is cellist Jian Wang, with whom he’s worked in performances with the Hallé before.

“He is a wonderful soloist,” he says, “in the great tradition of string playing. He is, as the American says, the real deal.”


Monday, 26 October 2015

Manchester Evening News review 23 October 2015

HALLE ORCHESTRA   Bridgewater Hall


THIS was one of the highlights of the Hallé Thursday concert series so far. Ryan Wigglesworth made his debut as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, and had the UK premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piano concerto to offer, among other things.

It wasn’t the conductor’s first time with the Hallé altogether – far from it. He’s worked with them for several years on recordings and concerts, and the announcement of his new job was made some time ago.

But each time we see him at work it seems there’s more to his gifting than you could reasonably expect from one man. The butcher’s son from Sheffield is a solo pianist and composer as well, for one thing. This time he was letting Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian for whom the concerto was written by Turnage, do the ivory-tickling.

It’s a very attractive piece. There are three movements – fast, slow, fast, in traditional style – and Turnage’s ability to vary and develop simple motifs as the music goes along, in an immediately clear and accessible way, is obvious in both the outer ones.

He brings in styles from jazz and swing traditions, too, with ‘stride’ writing for both piano and orchestra, and there is constant variety, like a fast-cut film. Some of the elements he uses, such as the principal rhythmic phrase of the last movement (which seemed to me reminiscent of one Bernstein used in West Side Story), are repeated to the point of being obsessive.

But the central slow movement, titled in tribute to composer Hans Werner Henze, to whose memory the whole concerto is dedicated, is deeply felt and haunting, with the piano’s long lullaby song, the sound of distant bells, and an unresolved cadential chord left hanging in the air.

The concert began with Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ symphony, no. 35, played in lively style by the Hallé under Lyn Fletcher’s leadership. The middle movements were stately, like an elderly but still gracious lady making her way across uneven ground, reflecting their socially decorous origins – but the finale fizzed.

Last was Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, 102 years old but still more able to shock than many of today’s experimentalists. Wigglesworth piloted the Hallé through an incisive performance, careful to grade the levels of intensity and deliver the coup de grace with some deftness.




Robert Beale

Friday, 23 October 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 23 October 2015

HARRY CHRISTOPHERS and his choral-orchestral group, The Sixteen, are firm favourites at the Bridgewater Hall – and ‘associate artists’, too, so it’s official.

On October 30 they’re presenting a festival of Handel’s music … some of Handel’s greatest hits, if you like. The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba, the overture to Jephtha, the coronation anthem Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened and extended cantata Dixit Dominus are all music they’ve performed here before (though some years ago), and they’re adding the Chandos anthem no. 11, Let God Arise, to that.

But Harry’s not apologizing for them repeating themselves. “Let God Arise has resonances with Dixit Dominus, which is an earlier work,” he says. “Handel often re-worked his own (and other people’s) music, and there are many similarities here, but ideas are also extended and elaborated.

“The anthem does not require violas, but there are parts for solo oboe and bassoon, and the writing is exciting, with two lovely vocal solos.

“Dixit Dominus itself is a showcase for any good choir. It really shows the depth of their sound – and of the orchestra, too, which a lot of people forget.

“Ours is full of really good players. They absolutely love being a complement to the choir, and they’re totally attentive to what’s being sung, which is not always the case!”

I asked him about the secret of Handel’s enduring popularity and fascination. “He often makes beauty out of total simplicity,” he said. “Think of the famous arias, such as Ombra mai fu (‘Handel’s Largo’), Where E’er You Walk and Lascia Chi’o Pianga – they are wonderfully sensual, joyous or painful.

“In his operas he could get behind the characters he was writing for … and we see something of that in his religious music, too.

“And he is a master of choruses. He can take a simple figure and maintain it, with a sense of ebb and flow, with a cumulative quality that builds through to the last few bars.”

The Sixteen are now engaged on a project that’s very much for Manchester and will reach its culmination at Easter weekend next year. They’re collaborating with Streetwise Opera, a charity that works with people who have experienced homelessness, to present The Passion – a fully-staged, abridged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

It will have a new finale written by Sir James MacMillan to a libretto by Streetwise Opera performers, and be performed in the Victorian iron and glass surroundings of Campfield Market.


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Manchester Evening News article 16 October 2015

COMPOSER Jonathan Dove has a premiere in Manchester on October 25. And not a note is written yet.

The creator of Pinocchio and Swan Hunter (both written for Opera North and performed here in recent years), and other orchestral and choral favourites, is contributing to the Manchester Science Festival with The Wave, commissioned for the occasion.

It’s at the Museum of Science and Industry and a response to artist Tania Kovats’ installation, titled Evaporation – a sculptural piece with three large metal bowls reflecting the shape of the world’s oceans – at MOSI from October 22 to the end of the following week.

The thing about Jonathan Dove’s work is that it will be improvised. He’s working with performers from the Royal Northern College of Music, and their joint creation will take place more than once during the day. Hang around long enough and you will probably hear four different pieces.

“Improvisation with community groups and young musicians is something I’ve used as part of my process of creation before,” says Dove. “But here it’s got a different purpose and character.”

Jonathan wrote music for the BBC Proms last year called Gaia Theory, which is a key to his keenness to be involved here.

“James Lovelock, the man who proposed the idea of the world as a single organism, with both animate and inanimate parts collaborating in a way that is congenial to life – which he calls Gaia – likens the process to a kind of dance.

“That’s the starting point for me. My impulse as a composer has always been to celebrate: I don’t want to use music to lecture, so even if this delicate organism is something we’re about to destroy, it’s good to see it as it is now.”

“In The Wave there will be singers and instrumentalists,” says Jonathan. “I don’t know how many, or what instruments will be available.

“I’ve obviously got quite a lot of ideas up my sleeve, but it will be very different from a composed piece. The important thing will be how each musician responds to what’s happening.”

Jonathan’s not finished with us, either. He’s writing a piece for the Hallé Children’s Choir to sing with the orchestra next summer (no tickets available yet). “It will be about the creation of the world,” he says. “So, as it happens, my next two contributions for Manchester are both on a global scale!”

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Manchester Evening News review 15 October 2015



THERE’S a wonderful quality about the classic European sound from Germany’s top orchestras. Barbirolli once compared it to the taste and texture of German sausage, and he wasn’t really being rude.

It’s rich, multi-flavoured and expertly blended, and in music such as Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger it really is a feast for the ears.

That was the first impression of the playing of the Dresden Philharmonic under their gifted young conductor, Michael Sanderling (son of the legendary Kurt), on their visit to the Bridgewater Hall.

There’s a firm foundation, with nine cellos and eight double basses, the legato playing is wondrous, and the brass admirably restrained. Melodic lines in the central section were clearly audible as well – an indicator of the quality of this ensemble and its director.

In the Eroica symphony of Beethoven, which filled the second half of the concert, it was as if another orchestra – just as good – had turned up. It wasn’t just the exchange in the concertmaster’s desk (frequent enough these days), the rearranged strings seating or the use of classical trumpets and different timpani – and it can’t have been the small reduction in strings numbers either, that made all the difference.

These players can adopt a totally different style of articulation – still central European, but transparent and beautifully clear – and it produced rich dividends. Sanderling is a straight-bat interpreter: there are no great surprises in his Beethoven, but the sound is precise and reveals melodic detail so often lost in humdrum readings. The finale in particular had both delicacy and weight, as befits the dance music from which it was fashioned.

The best of all in this concert was, however, in the centre. Elgar’s cello concerto was played by the young Argentinian-born Sol Gambetta, who must be among the greatest of today’s soloists.

She and Sanderling made the concerto’s opening thoughtful indeed, and the slow movement changed magically from idyll to elegy. The faster sections, though, were athletic (perhaps a trifle over-strict in rhythmic terms) and made a telling contrast with the outburst of misery. It was, finally, one of the most moving interpretations of the concerto I’ve heard.

It was a charming complement to her colleagues in the orchestra that she played as an encore her all-cello version of Casal’s arrangement of Song Of The Birds.


Robert Beale

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Manchester Evening News review 10 October 2015

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall and Radio 3


SIR Mark Elder opened the Hallé Thursday concert series with Mozart and Mahler – one in A major and the other A minor, as it happens.

Poles apart in content, you might think, but the music represented two poles of the evolving Viennese tradition and cross-illuminated each other as a result.

Soloist in Mozart’s piano concerto in A, K414 – one of the first he wrote to make his name in Vienna as a freelance composer-performer – was Christian Zacharias, a master of the genre if ever there was one. The Hallé was reduced to classical size for this performance, though the piano was of course a full-size concert grand, which made for a slightly uneven quality in the textures, but there was great sensitivity on all sides throughout and the music sounded utterly captivating.

The soloist added his own interesting embellishments of the written part just here and there, and chose the composer’s interlocking cadenza for the final movement, delightfully handled.

Mahler’s sixth symphony is a huge and ultimately tragic work. Sir Mark wanted it to make its full impact and secured two celestas, four harps and a special resonator for the finale’s giant hammer. In terms of sound effects, the sound of mountain cowbells always seems to be a little problematical in this and other Mahler works – those offstage were virtually inaudible from my seat (they are meant to be ‘distant’, but the real thing carries for miles in still air), and orchestras often collect a set made mainly of the bigger ones you hardly ever find on real Alpine cows.

Never mind. The music itself came over with immense energy and emotional power, from the relentless tramp of the opening, with the brass in splendid voice, through to the tension-screwing finale. There was a vivid sense of foreboding even in the middle of the first movement, and the unstable pulse of the scherzo was finely calculated and effectively realized, taking the mood from the ominous to the macabre.

But Sir Mark also found heart-warming beauty and eloquence in the unfurling melody of the slow movement (which he placed second), and in the tender sections of the others. They used to knock Barbirolli for lingering over the purple passages in scores like this. In this case there was no infidelity to the composer’s markings at all, but fulfilling his vision so fully produced an opulence in the Hallé sound that was worth the wallow in itself.


Robert Beale

Friday, 9 October 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 9 October 2015

MANCHESTER boasts a large number of top-notch chamber choirs. One that may not be familiar – unless you live in Bolton – is the Brixi Singers.

They’re performing, with orchestra, at Christ Church West Didsbury on October 17: the programme includes Mozart’s Requiem plus his Ave Verum Corpus and Regina Coeli, Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir, and the recently written O Salutaris Hostia by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenwalds.

The Brixis began just over 20 years ago, and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral assistant director of music and organist Richard Lea is their musical director.

So what’s with the funny name? The first piece they ever sang was by 17th century Czech composer Brixi, and the name stuck. The choir puts on its own concerts each year, but has also toured in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic.

“We’re restricted by our constitution to a maximum of 25 voices,” says choir secretary Patricia Zukowskyj, “and entry is by private audition. At present we are over-subscribed in the higher voices, but could take on three more men.

“Our concert-giving is restricted by school holidays, as several members are in teaching, but we’re quite an eclectic mix. We rehearse every Sunday in term time in Harwood.

“On of the reasons I first joined is that it’s very hard work. Richard Lea’s standards are high, and rehearsals last two hours without a break. I used to find it difficult to switch off from thinking about my job, but when you’re in rehearsal with Richard you can’t focus on anything else but the music.

“I used to sing in another choir, but that felt like having a Mini – and this feels like being in a Porsche!”

Richard Lea says he appreciates the individuality of voices in the choir: “And we’re drawing on our own members for the soloists in the Mozart Requiem – but they all pull together as well. They’re very alert and easy to mould.”

The orchestra for the Didsbury concert will be about 20-strong, drawn from Bolton’s best. The Ešenwalds piece is not only new to most listeners but new to the Brixi Singers, too.

Richard Lea says: “I first heard it about a year ago on YouTube, and I thought then I must have this for the choir.”

“It’s immensely beautiful,” says Patricia Zukowskyj. “There is a base of harmony over which two soprano voices float like angels. I think people will love it.”