Friday, 27 February 2015

Article published in the Manchester Evening News 27 February 2015

THERE’S a surprise in the Hallé Thursday concert series on March 5 – the orchestra giving the concert is not the Hallé. 

It’s not unheard of, but it’s rare, and the result of the Hallé Orchestra being away on tour, usually. This time the guest orchestra is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. They’re conducted by their justly celebrated chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko. 

It’s an all-Russian programme, too: Rimsky-Korsakov’s overture, The Tsar’s Bride, begins it, and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony is last.  

There’s more Tchaikovsky in between – the second piano concerto. This isn’t as well known as the first, but could hardly have a better advocate – one of the leading Russian pianists today, Nikolai Lugansky. 

The 42-year-old has been compared with Rachmaninov for the brilliance and poetry of his playing, and has earned a string of awards for his recordings – as well as the UK’s own Terence Judd Award back in 1995 – and his performance of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto at 2013’s Proms was hailed as ‘classical yet thrillingly virtuosic’ and ‘breathtakingly no-nonsense’. 

He was recently on a UK tour with the St Petersburg Philharmonic, but we missed seeing him then. Now, thanks to the RLPO, is Manchester’s opportunity. 

When I spoke to him he emphasized the quality of that Russian tradition he is heir to. He may be one of the last to come through the hot-house system of schooling talent which was part of the Soviet era. 

“From the age of five-and-a-half, when I first got a toy piano, it was natural for me to play. My parents gave me a book of Beethoven sonatas when I was six, and I tried to play some at a neighbour’s house, where they had an upright piano.  

“When I was six or seven, we got one ourselves. One summer we went to see an elderly teacher who heard me try to play my Beethoven, and he started to give me lessons.” 

Soon afterwards he joined Moscow’s Central Music School, and 11 years later the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers included the legendary Tatiana Nikolayeva. 

He knows that some would say the real ‘Russian’ characteristic of pianism is a singing tone – a quality often observed in his own playing – but he’s aware that others would say it’s also about ‘sportsmen who play loud, quickly, and all the right notes!’  

That (apart from all the right notes) you may be sure is not the Lugansky way.

Review written for the Manchester Evening News 25 February 2015

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall


THE promised Mozart Sinfonia Concertante played by husband-and-wife Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius did not materialise in this week’s Opus One programmes, because of illness. 

The substitutes, though, turned out to be just as interesting as the original bill would have been. The conductor was the young American James Feddeck, who has made a big impression as an assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra. In his handling of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Fair Melusine (inspired by a fairytale about a water sprite), we could see why. 

His technique is clear and economical, and in the opening and, particularly, the ending of the overture he obtained a combination of smooth, mellow tone and rhythmic lightness of touch from the Hallé that was a pleasure to hear, while the middle part of the piece was energetic, clearly articulated and well contrasted. 

Henning Kraggerud came as soloist with Mozart’s fifth violin concerto. He took over in many ways what would have been Zehetmair’s role as soloist-director, as Feddeck happily took a subordinate place while Kraggerud led the orchestra in the full passages, as well as taking the solo ones. 

The result was a happy one, the playing pointed and stylish from the outset, with the Hallé reduced to chamber orchestra numbers and Lyn Fletcher in her place at the front desk. The soloist gave two impressive lessons in double-stopping in his cadenzas for the first and second movements, and, when it came, the ‘Turkish’ music which gives the concerto its nickname was as wild-eyed and scary as any civilized 18th century Austrian might have imagined Turks to be. 

On top of that, Henning Kraggerud brought the alternative slow movement Mozart wrote (with two flutes added to the instrumentation) as an encore – and gave us another sparky cadenza in that. He is a gifted and appealing musician and his contribution was the high point of the concert. 

Beethoven’s fifth symphony formed the second part. There’s not a lot a visiting conductor can do to stamp his personality on such a familiar piece, but I found his presentation of the gentler contrasts to the hammering rhythms refreshing and well emphasized, and the strings played gorgeously in the second movement. 

The dancing elephants (as Berlioz thought) imitated by cellos and basses in the third movement were more nimble than we sometimes hear, and the final sprint of the last movement was aptly taken (after a tiny hesitation).



Robert Beale

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Review written for the Manchester Evening News 23 February 2015



I’VE never known a concert change so much in an evening. After a rough and ready opening with very little of distinction about it, the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra ended their programme at the Bridgewater Hall with a splendid performance and roars of approval.

With two encores provided by conductor and artistic director Alexander Dmitriev taking them past 10pm, it was also good value for money. They are not, of course, the St Petersburg Philharmonic – which some say is the finest orchestra in the world – but at their best they can run them a pretty impressive second. 

This is the orchestra whose history includes the heroic performance of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony at the height of their city’s desperate siege during the Second World War, and Rachmaninov’s second symphony, which brought an ovation, is their birthright, too, as it was premiered in St Petersburg. 

But they began their Manchester programme with Sibelius: the popular, three-movement Karelia Suite. It was bold and brash, with the typically Russian sound balance of dark, rich bass notes and bright wind and brass tone, but came over as strident and piercing some of the time. The Alla Marcia was like a foreign national anthem blasted out unsympathetically in some athletic contest’s medal ceremony. 

It was followed by Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, with three top-class soloists: violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Freddy Kempf. The latter are two of Britain’s finest musicians today, and the three clearly gelled together, taking the music by the scruff of the neck and injecting fun and life into it even when the Russians seemed hesitant to do so. There were subtle rhythmic emphases from Kempf, and the cello solo of the slow movement was pure delight. 

But then the 80-year-old maestro and his orchestra got to home territory with Rachmaninov. The bravura and over-emphasis we’d heard before transformed into a performance that was heartfelt, assured, fluent, idiomatic and appealing. This music really is their native breath (rather as Elgar’s first – written, incidentally at the same time – is ours), and they know exactly how it works. 

Their strings rejoiced in the soaring melodies and rich harmonic textures, the wind solos were beautiful, and the third movement reached a seriously powerful emotional climax. It was full steam ahead to the finale’s last pages, and a deserved ovation, in which the musicians seemed as keen to applaud their conductor as we them. 


Robert Beale


Friday, 20 February 2015

Article published in the Manchester Evening News 20 February 2015

MANCHESTER Camerata’s afternoon concert at the Royal Exchange Theatre on Sunday, March 1, is unusual even for the city’s most ground-breaking orchestral musicians. 

It’s called Challenging The Senses and will offer the audience a chance to experience live music-making in completely new ways – using the senses of touch, smell, taste and sight as well as hearing. 

Everyone gets a blindfold, so they can try listening in darkness, and there’ll be cocktails, scent bombs … and other things, as yet undisclosed, in what’s described as ‘an immersive experience’. 

Camerata principal players give performances of Black Angels, by George Crumb, Go Crystal Tears, by John Dowland, Shostakovich’s string quartet no. 8, and Haydn’s string quartet no. 63, known as ‘The Sunrise’. 

“It’s part of the new vision we’ve got, of redefining what an orchestra can do,” says Camerata chief executive Bob Riley. “A while ago we decided it could be easier to go to places where people who are interested in art and culture already are than to ask them to come to traditional concert halls. 

“And the Royal Exchange is a place where you’re in the round, there’s stage lighting, everyone is a lot closer to the players – which is something people tell us they like about hearing the Camerata. This concert is about what happens when people make contact with each other through music, and how we can enhance that.” 

There’s also a link, he points out, with an academically moderated programme the musicians are carrying out with dementia sufferers and therapists at present, looking at what actually happens when music impacts on people. 

And in venues as varied as Gorilla Bar, Manchester Cathedral and the Whitworth Art Gallery, the Camerata are attracting significant numbers of people who are new to their music.  

“In this city we have the opportunity to work with some great people and amazing organizations. It’s very ‘Manc’ – we like to innovate and push the barriers. 

“There’s a big new audience out there who like experiences, not just straight concerts. The Manchester International Festival has brought that out. But the whole point is still the music, and the amazing musicians who play it.” 

He may be showing the way to other orchestras, too. Some of the smaller, more flexible ones nationally are trying new ideas in presentation as well. But maybe none quite so radically as our Manchester Camerata. 

l Manchester Camerata ‘Up Close’, Royal Exchange Theatre, March 1, 3pm.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Article published in the Manchester Evening News 13 February 2015

THOMAS Zehetmair has become a regular and welcome visitor to the Hallé in recent years.
The Salzburg-born and trained violinist is both a soloist on his own instrument and conductor, and his Hallé collaborations have included a Gramophone Award-winning recording of Elgar’s violin concerto, with Sir Mark Elder conducting. 

His next visit, though, is a special one, as he appears not just as conductor (Mendelssohn’s overture The Fair Melusine and Beethoven’s fifth symphony) – but as duo-soloist with his wife, violist Ruth Killius, in Mozart’s magical Sinfonia Concertante in E flat. 

It’s a kind of concerto for both violin and viola, and it’s often been said that there is no more perfect expression of an equal partnership between two personalities. 

The Zehetmairs have played it often, and they obviously enjoy every chance to do so. I spoke to Thomas as they were in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago on another joint engagement (they also play together in the Zehetmair String Quartet). 

“We do many things together, and many separately,” he said. “But it’s very nice to spend as much time together as possible.  

“We understand each other without words on the musical level. The Sinfonia Concertante is wonderful to play, even though we have done it quite a lot before. There are different levels in the piece which are there all the time, and somehow every time there is a new dimension to it.  

“That is the sign of a masterpiece. It has many elements of opera – like a dialogue between two lovers, their games and their feelings. There are nostalgic and even tragic emotions in it.  

“In one sense we exchange roles when we play it, because I play mainly the high-voice part! We need to be good actors, in a way.  

“Ruth plays the viola with the strings tuned higher than normal – as Mozart intended. He wrote the viola part in D, though everything else is in E flat, so the viola has to be tuned a half-tone higher. It makes a very special sound, since everything Mozart did was quite deliberate. 

“And since the orchestral violas are tuned normally and divided into two groups, you get intriguing combinations of colour, and this makes the sound incredibly rich.”


l Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius are soloists with the Halle Orchestra, and Thomas Zehetmair conducts, at the Bridgewater Hall on February 22, 25 and 26 (7.30pm on 22nd and 26th, 2.15pm on 25th).