Sunday, 26 April 2015

Review written for Manchester Evening News 24 April 2015



FOUR of Manchester’s most loved piano virtuosi were onstage for the finale of the ‘Ravel and Rachmaninov’ festival on Friday night.


Noriko Ogawa (the festival creator), Martin Roscoe, Kathryn Stott and Peter Donohoe each played solo in a programme made of four great piano concerto (or concerto-style) works, with the BBC Philharmonic under conductor Andrew Gourlay. For lovers of the piano at its most brilliant, it was sheer heaven.


Ravel’s two concertos came first: the witty, jazzy, bright and breezy Concerto in G major, played by Noriko Ogawa, and the Concerto For The Left Hand by Martin Roscoe. As pieces written more or less simultaneously, they are hugely contrasted – the former requiring formidable skill and brilliance, to which Ogawa brought a willingness to melt her music into its surroundings and (in the slow movement) captivating delicacy and purity – and the latter extraordinary power and stamina. Martin Roscoe’s achievement, as a normally two-handed pianist of immense experience, was remarkable, and a musical one as much as technical.


Rachmaninov was represented by his fourth piano concerto, with Kathryn Stott the eloquent protagonist, and his Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini. Both were pretty near ideal interpreters, as she brought infinitely varied expression to the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t style of writing, when poetry keeps making its seductive presence felt, as well as meeting all its extraordinary technical demands, while his playing was as fluent and beautifully shaped in its phrasing as any performance I’ve heard of a very popular work.


Andrew Gourlay’s direction helped create some magical moments in the orchestral part of the score, too – imaginative colouring in the mix of portent and gossamer of variation 7, breathless beauty in variations 11 and 12, and sumptuous richness in the famous variation 18, ultimately all the better for its initial restraint.


I shouldn’t let the occasion pass without a reference to the previous day’s recital (the finale to the Manchester Mid-day Concerts series), when Peter Donohoe and Noriko Ogawa played the music of R&R in two-piano duet. Each a wonderful soloist, together they are astounding, their telepathic unanimity night unbelievable.


There were two delightful encores, the second a version of Ravel’s Conversations Of Beauty And The Beast (from his Mother Goose Suite). Peter Donohoe, introducing it, dryly claimed his role to be that of Beauty (in reality they shared the Beast-y bits) – whatever, it was one of those Manchester moments you never forget.




Robert Beale

Friday, 24 April 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 24 April 2015

THERE’S a lull in Manchester’s classical music next week, which gives me a chance to look back on some notable performances seen so far this year. 

Two have been of opera: recently the Royal Northern College of Music’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was a magical staging with magical music conducted by Andrew Greenwood, and very fine singing by both the casts.  

Before that Opera North presented a new Marriage Of Figaro at The Lowry, which amply fulfilled their mission of making opera accessible while keeping to very high musical and production standards. Quirijn de Lang, as Count Almaviva, came over sympathetically as the old-style aristocrat boss frustrated by his servants (and, of course, the women, whose plotting crosses class barriers completely).  

He is a superb singer, and I noticed he used a conversational style of recitative sometimes looser than the notation, where the other principals were all stricter: I liked his style. 

Richard Burkhard’s performance as Figaro was well acted and finely sung, too, and director Jo Davies encouraged all the leads to find real personality, not caricature, in their acting. 

Among orchestral concerts, the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra had real impact at the Bridgewater Hall in February, though a rough-and-ready opening with Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gave little hint that under 80-year-old maestro Alexander Dmitriev they would end with Rachmaninov’s second symphony in a heartfelt, assured, fluent, idiomatic and appealing performance – to roars of approval. 

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, in between, had three top-class soloists: violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Freddy Kempf, who took the music by the scruff of the neck and injected life into it even when the Russians seemed hesitant to do so. 

The other outstanding orchestral event was the RNCM Symphony Orchestra under Jac van Steen, with soloists Sarah Connolly and Jane Irwin, in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony last month – the official opening of the refurbished RNCM concert hall. From the electric opening, with gloriously responsive and romantically lyrical string playing, it was clear it would be a special evening. The brass were disciplined and warm in chorus, the woodwind piquant and pastoral.  

The second movement was played with delicacy, the third’s surreal dance had a delightfully springy rhythm, and the paradise-storming finale, with previously off-stage brass and the RNCM Chorus high in the centre gallery, brought its crowning glories to Mahler’s vision of new life for the dead.



Monday, 20 April 2015

Review 20 April 2015

MANCHESTER CAMERATA  Manchester Cathedral


GABOR Takács-Nagy has transformed Manchester Camerata in the four seasons since he became its music director, and nowhere else is that more marked than in its playing as a string ensemble. 

This concert at Manchester Cathedral, led by Katie Stillman, saw the predominantly young players making music of extraordinary quality.  

 The Camerata strings were joined by pianist Dejan Lazić for Britten’s lively brief starter, Young Apollo. It sounds wonderful with a small but eloquent main group balancing the string quartet and piano, and the cathedral acoustic is remarkably good for such forces. But what made it really magical was the way Takács-Nagy handled the music, with a real sense of mystery in the hushed middle section and finely shaped phrasing throughout. 

In Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (performed in strings-only garb) the partnership between pianist and conductor was in both sympathy and style, with Lazić seemingly re-creating in our presence the gentle, mystic Chopin who so bewitched his contemporaries, and Takács-Nagy responding, with the orchestra, in tender and poetic playing. 

I’ve heard this piece so often as a competition item, where correctness seemed to be the only factor in the first movement: what a joy to hear it made into a thing of beauty, with a romantic approach and effective varying of the pulse (Chopin was a master of that). The slow movement – played very slow – was quite beautiful, the string playing superb to match the piano’s dreamy soliloquies, and the finale not a speed test either, but pearly clear and still brilliant in effect.  

After the interval the Camerata entranced their hearers with Barber’s Adagio For Strings (incidentally, I don’t believe the story that Toscanini ‘suggested’ making it an orchestral piece to Barber – a letter in the Barbirolli US archive once kept by the Hallé shows that Barber himself touted the idea to the conductor of the New York Philharmonic as well as the Italian maestro, and Barbirolli wanted the premiere but missed out). 

Finally came another transcription of string quartet music for string orchestra, in Mahler’s version of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ quartet (opus 95). There are few as expert as string quartet genius Gábor Takács-Nagy in the nuances of this music, and the playing was passionate and powerful, the third movement imbued with sheer ardour and near-anger, too.  

It’s a very personal expression of emotion and grief and brought this remarkable concert to a marvellous high point. 


Robert Beale

Friday, 17 April 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 17 April 2015

LIFE is a cabaret, old chum, and to prove it the Royal Northern College of Music’s Day of Song this year is all about cabaret. It’s on April 26. 

Invited by Head of Vocal Studies Lynne Dawson, its artistic director is Jonathan Fisher, RNCM staff pianist with a specialism in song – but the idea for the cabaret day originally came from the RNCM singers themselves. 

“The whole day was offered to our final-year undergraduate performers, to choose their own repertoire,” says Jonathan. “And they came up with the idea of cabaret and its influence on the art song. 

“There are some famous examples of cabaret songs written by classical composers – including Benjamin Britten and William Walton. Britten set lyrics by W H Auden, including The Truth About Love and Funeral Blues (‘Stop all the clocks …’).  

“There’s quite an emphasis on Auden in these programmes, because he was in Berlin in the 1920s, the time of Kabarett portrayed in the musical, Cabaret.” 

Jonathan has been working on the project since last October with the final-year students, and five concerts start at 1.15pm with ‘Hommage to Le Chat Noir’ – Paris’s first modern cabaret club, including music by Satie and Poulenc.  

‘The Truth about Love’ (2.15pm) highlights Britten and Walton, with some new cabaret songs written by RNCM composers, and at 3.30pm there’s Berliner Kabarett (music by Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler and Arnold Schoenberg), followed by the RNCM Cabaret Band playing for excerpts from The Threepenny Opera and Cabaret the musical (6.30pm). From 8pm there’s a relaxed, free-admission evening in the RNCM Café and bar, transformed into a cabaret-style venue.  

“The Parisian cabaret of Le Char Noir was where you would find the painter Toulouse-Lautrec, the poet Paul Verlaine, along with composers Debussy and Satie,” says Jonathan. “And we’re extending that to include Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich.  

“The Britten cabaret songs include some apart from the four published under that title, which were not published until after his death. 

“The Berliner Kabarett brings in Schoenberg – he wrote eight songs (Brettl-Lieder) in cabaret style – and Kurt Weill … and we have his music for The Threepenny Opera in the 6.30pm concert. Most of the day is with piano accompaniment, but we have the band for that one. 

“And for the last event we’ll have something from Chicago and hopefully people will come in, have a drink and just enjoy the experience!”


Monday, 13 April 2015

Review written for the Manchester Evening News 10 April 2015



THE Royal Philharmonic has a sound that’s its own, and it’s mainly to do with full-on tone production and a very clear cello line – indeed it was quite a surprise to hear so much volume coming from a band of 50 strings, when some top orchestras would rarely be seen without 60.

Their concert at the Bridgewater Hall, with Pinchas Zukerman as violin soloist, was on traditional lines in the choice of music – two Beethovens and Elgar – and pretty traditional in the way they played, too. 

Conductor was Christoph Koenig, and with Clio Gould leading they managed to get the opening tuttis of Beethoven’s Coriolan overture together by the fifth attack, which wasn’t bad for a start from cold. After that it went very well (except for the final plucked unison), and very much in the central European tradition of big and resonant. 

It was Beethoven on auto-pilot at times, too, which now and then applied to the ‘Pastoral’ symphony (no. 6) also. All four horn players came on to share duties and beef up the sound where required, and the wind players made lovely birdsong amid an appealingly transparent texture from the full band. 

There was nothing so modern as an exposition repeat in the first movement, though, but the storm evocation was open-throttle and thunderous, and much lovely mellow playing came in the second and final movements. I think they were as entranced by the sheer beauty of the writing as we were, and enjoying the experience, too. 

So were the audience – despite a gentle ticking-off from the conductor to some for applauding after the first movement. Charles Hallé liked to hear applause after a good symphonic opening, and I don’t see why anyone shouldn’t reinstate the practice for music of this era. I say don’t worry, folks. 

Zukerman’s account of the Elgar violin concerto was positive and by no means over-sentimental. Even the tenderest of themes had a bit of swagger and flourish in his hands, and the orchestra brought its incisive brass to a rendering that was fully in sympathy with the composer’s voice and yet seemed to lack direction occasionally. 

The middle movement had sweetness and winsomeness and at the end the right sense of awe and self-effacement, while the finale brought more hushed nostalgia alongside touches of Edwardian grandeur, which went down very well with the public.  


Robert Beale

Friday, 10 April 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 10 April 2015

MANCHESTER’S top two orchestras have major world premieres by British composers on consecutive days at the Bridgewater Hall. 

First is the Hallé, with A Celestial Map Of The Sky, by Tarik O’Regan, a 15-minute work commissioned by Manchester Grammar School to mark its quincentenary (and featuring the MGS Choir alongside the Hallé Youth Choir). That’s on April 16, conducted by Sir Mark Elder.  

The following night H K Gruber conducts the BBC Philharmonic in the 25-minute eighth symphony of David Matthews, a BBC commission (the world premiere of Matthews’ seventh symphony was part of the Mahler celebration here five years ago). 

Tarik’s a composer and former percussionist with two Grammy nominations and two British Composer Awards already. He tells me it was a visit to MGS that set his mind on the theme that sparked his imagination. “I was looking around the library and saw a very early tome: Erasmus’s translation of the New Testament. 

“I’d been reading about the 16th century humanist principles behind the founding of the school, and I saw a connection between that and the print by Albrecht Dürer which gives the piece its title. He shows the night sky of the northern hemisphere, framed by images of real astronomers – not gods or allegorical figures, so the idea is that real people framed our understanding of the universe.” 

The work takes texts from Whitman, Hopkins, Bourdillon and Mahmood Jamal, including Whitman’s ‘I see the cities of the earth …’ – one is Manchester. 

David Matthews says he didn’t expect to write another symphony, having created a symphonic poem for his last commission from the Philharmonic (played at the BBC Proms in 2013). “But I overcame my reluctance and decided to do one. It’s quite different from the seventh, which was in one movement. 

“This has three, very contrasted. The second movement is slow, and the third fast.” The first, he explains in a programme note, starts slowish but becomes a concise quick movement. 

The finale is light-hearted, in four dance sections, each just over a minute long. It has melodic ideas which, David says, ‘some might think naïve’, but he adds: “I might be criticized for writing unaffectedly happy music, which it is, but I think that if contemporary classical music is to have any chance of connecting with people today, it has to have something they can recognise and relate to … and that, mainly, is melody.”

Friday, 3 April 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 3 April 2015

A newly created music festival is making waves in the north west, and Easter Monday, April 6, sees its classiest project yet. 

Violinist Tom Elliott is artistic director of the Glossop Music Festival – his wife is Katherine Baker, principal flute of the Hallé, and a whole community of classical musicians are behind the project. 

Their Easter concert is Bach’s St John Passion, with star soprano Elin Manahan Thomas taking part, and singers from the Dunedin Consort and other Bach specialists as soloists, chamber choir and orchestra – including Joel Hunter, principal viola of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Sarah McMahon, principal cellist with the Academy of Ancient Music. Venue is Glossop Parish Church, which Tom says has amazing acoustics. 

It hosted a first festival last summer, and there’ll be another this year. It all began with a chance remark by Tom’s old friend and colleague from the Royal Academy of Music, Viv McLean, a concert pianist who performed with the Hallé early in 2012.  

Tom says: “He stayed with us in Glossop and asked us: ‘Is there a music festival based here?’ I said: ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and he said: ‘Why don’t you start one?’ It all went on from there.” 

Viv has already given recitals in Glossop, the last one in December, when he played Poulenc’s flute sonata with Katherine Baker. The festival’s built around personal friendship, with conductor Chris George and orchestra leader Matthew Truscott (who trained at Chetham’s and is a historical-performance specialist) both Tom’s former colleagues.

Tom and Kath have lived in the centre of Glossop for almost 10 years, and have three boys: Arthur, 9, Henry, 7, and Felix, 5.  

“When we began our family I was away about six months out of the year, and after our second child it was clear this wasn’t going to work for much longer. So I decided to take a break and do other things.” Those included forming his own company to fit solar panels to houses, but he says he didn’t find it very emotionally satisfying, compared with music.  

“Now I teach the violin full-time, both in local schools and privately – and organizing the festival is going to keep me busy. Hopefully we’ll persuade some more of our friends to take part – and we want children to be included whenever possible. We don’t charge them for admission to concerts, as long as their parents come.”