Monday, 28 September 2015

Manchester Evening News review 28 Sep 2015



BY the time Manchester Camerata’s season-opening concert took place on Saturday, its title had expanded from just ‘España’ to ‘España, Beethoven and the Beatles’. The reason for the third part of that trilogy only became apparent during the evening, but the capacity to hit multiple targets simultaneously is a Camerata feature these days, and they do it very well.

So the Bridgewater Hall audience was introduced to their community work with a pre-show performance, and to their ground-breaking work with dementia patients through a short film in the hall itself.

The music-making began with Rossini, whose overture to The Barber Of Seville, ostensibly Spanish in location, is really about as Italian as you can get (as music director Gábor Takács-Nagy explained in his introductory chat). It was lively and transparently-textured, a factor that rubbed off in all the subsequent orchestral playing.

España itself followed – the overture by Chabrier, re-arranged by Simon Parkin for chamber orchestra in a way that brought birdsong to the range of colourful effects and kept the percussion players (all two of them) extremely busy switching from one piece of kit to another (and sometimes deploying two at once). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a maraca used to hit a kettle drum before.

Manchester’s favourite guitarist, Craig Ogden, was the soloist in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra (replacing the injured Miloš Karadaglić).

He needed two chairs on stage – one for himself and one for his little amplifier, which certainly helped to make every note of the solo audible over the orchestra, though I’m not sure how much Rodrigo would even have expected that.

Still, it was a lovely and lively interpretation of the piece (extremely so in the case of the oboe part in the first movement), with the orchestra producing some delicately tiny pianissimi, and Craig Ogden’s playing superb as ever.

Then the first explanation of where the Beatles were to figure in the concert: his encore was Takemitsu’s solo guitar version of Yesterday, which is just a little different from the original but equally enchanting.

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony (no. 6) followed, played by Takács-Nagy and the Camerata with all the imagination and dramatic effect they could muster: it’s exciting to hear how thunderous the storm can sound even with limited numbers in the orchestra (as would have been the case originally), and never was the sense of devout communing with nature quite so well evoked as at the end of this reading – Beethoven as a musical Wordsworth.

Then the second Beatles number, as the strings of the orchestra played Eleanor Rigby as their encore to the whole programme. It certainly sent everyone home happy.



Robert Beale

Friday, 25 September 2015

Article in Manchester Evening News 25 September 2015

VERDI’S Requiem has a special place in Sir Mark Elder’s musical life. He’s performing it with the Hallé Orchestra and Choir and a hand-picked team of soloists at the Bridgewater Hall on October 3 – but his love for it stems from when he was 10.

“I remember finding a score of it, at a time when I’d never heard music of that kind,” he says (he was a choirboy at Canterbury Cathedral, so knew his church music … but not this work).

He tried it out on the piano, and began a love of the Requiem – and Verdi’s music generally – that has lasted his life long.

Verdi wrote it for the concert hall rather than the church, but Sir Mark does not go along with calling it the composer’s ‘best opera’.

“He was said to be an atheist, but I think in reality was agnostic,” he says. “And I suspect he was a deeply spiritual man. The sense of fear and desperation you hear at the end is very strong and moving evidence of that.

“One thing that makes it so beautiful is that it sits in the Catholic tradition in which he was brought up, but his genius of writing truly dramatic music is not at odds with it.”

He’s proud that this Hallé performance features three Italian soloists – soprano Maria Agresta, tenor Giorgio Berrugi and bass Gianluca Burrato (who takes the place of Alexander Vinogradov). With them is mezzo-soprano Alice Coote – many will remember her in the Hallé of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 2008, among other outstanding performances.

And the Hallé bass drum player has a starring role in the Dies Irae music of the Requiem. “I always tell them to hit it as hard as they can,” says Sir Mark. “And I’ll buy them a new drum head if they go right through.”

Two days after the Requiem, he and the Hallé have the leading part in a concert at the Royal Northern College of Music to commemorate Manchester journalist and music writer Michael Kennedy, who died at the end of last year.

It includes a formidable catalogue of world-class British opera singers, donating their services (including bass Sir John Tomlinson, flying in from Frankfurt), and Sir Andrew Davis is coming from Chicago to share the rostrum with Sir Mark. Proceeds go to the Michael Kennedy Memorial Fund, which will support RNCM students of the future.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Manchester Evening News review 23 September 2015

NICOLA BENEDETTI  Bridgewater Hall


NICOLA Benedetti last played The Four Seasons in the Bridgewater Hall just a year ago, guesting with Manchester Camerata in a performance which I found very rewarding. This time she was with her own little group – her cellist partner Leonard Elschenbroich among them – on a tour called Italy And The Four Seasons.

Vivaldi’s scene-painting music was as charming as ever: stylistically in tune with the latest ideas and highly imaginative. Birds chirruped, dogs barked, teeth chattered … and though it didn’t beat the best concert version of the music I’ve ever heard (by the Academy of Ancient Music, here five years ago), it was very good.

This was a chamber music concert, really, with just 11 musicians at the most on stage alongside Nicola and Leonard, and the hall is good for that. Their softest playing was a mere whisper, their imitative effects completely free and sometimes surprising, their fastest music simply furious.

It was interesting to hear the solo cello line coming out more strongly than you often do – but then, why not? There’s almost a duo piece to be heard in The Four Seasons if you listen for it.

Dropping the other listed Vivaldi concerto from the programme, Nicola Benedetti then introduced a superb little ensemble of National Children’s Orchestra string players from around the region, who shone like real stars in a movement from the Vivaldi G major concerto.

The second part of the concert included some really new music – Duetti D’Amore, by Mark-Anthony Turnage, written for Benedetti and Elschenbroich and getting its first performances on this tour, which began a week ago. This was its world cinquieme, if you want to be precise about it.

For violin and cello alone, its five brief sections are captivating, easy on the ear and at times hugely effective and haunting. I wondered just how it might work for a duo who weren’t committed to each other in a love relationship … but that’s a question for another day. This playing, especially in the tender dialogue of the fourth movement, was very beautiful. And the ‘Blues’ finale, wittily bringing audible discord to the forefront, was exciting and, in the end, completely unified.

The concert finished with four string players back on stage with Benedetti and Elschenbroich to play the original sextet version of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir De Florence. If there had been any doubts as to the scope of these musicians’ sympathies in successfully turning from baroque to high Romantic style, they disappeared in seconds. It was glorious to hear, superbly balanced and voiced, passionate and thrilling and finally pure eloquence and fun.


Robert Beale

Manchester Evening News review 23 September 2015



THERE’S nothing quite like the autumnal glow of Brahms’s late chamber works to warm the heart, and they were a timely part of the opening concert in Manchester Chamber Concerts Society’s 79th annual season.

It was a delight, too, to have the society’s artistic director, Martin Roscoe, himself appearing on the opening bill, in a piano trio with clarinettist James Campbell and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum.

Brahms was balanced with Beethoven in their programme, opening with the latter’s Clarinet Trio in B flat op. 11. It began with perfect manners on all sides, self-effacement almost the order of the day, which is probably Martin Roscoe’s trademark as a musician as much as anyone’s (and to be admired).

But that didn’t detract from the music’s impact, and when it came to the slow movement both clarinet and cello brought pure magic to the restful melody that leads it. Canadian James Campbell is an amazing player – poised, unaffected and eloquent, and Ralph Kirshbaum is still a favourite with Manchester music-lovers after his long association with the RNCM here in the past.

His singing tone in the upper register of the cello is something you don’t easily forget: we heard it to best advantage in the other Beethoven piece, his Cello Sonata in A major op. 69. That had a touch of manic quality in its scherzo and wonderfully positive ending.

The Brahms works were the second Clarinet Sonata of op. 120, tender and captivatingly lyrical in James Campbell’s rendering, with a finely judged shade of passion at the highpoint of its finale, and the Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano, which ended the evening.

It’s a little gem of nostalgic writing (one of the last things he created), and this interpretation captured its atmosphere to the full, with gracefulness and mellow expression sustained through to the end.

The MCCS’s programmes continue this autumn with the Escher String Quartet (October 12) and a recital by tenor James Gilchrist (November 9), before Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Oboe Quartet appear on December 9.


Robert Beale

Monday, 21 September 2015

Manchester Evening News review 21 September 2015

BBC PHILHARMONIC  Bridgewater Hall


THIS concert was in effect a re-run of one they gave in the BBC Proms in London in the summer, and well worth the second run at it for the Philharmonic’s home crowd (plus, I would estimate, quite a few visitors).

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie was the big second-half work – all 10 movements and 80 minutes of it – but for me the revelation was before that, in John Foulds’ Three Mantras.

The Manchester-born modernist composer is only now becoming belatedly recognized, and the striking thing is how accessible and un-scary his music from the 1920s and 1930s is, even though it may have raised hackles at the time it was conceived.

And this three-part work (originally planned as instrumentals for an opera) is in part a marvellous orchestral showpiece which the BBC Philharmonic, under chief conductor Juanjo Mena, clearly relished.

There was magnificent playing in the first and last movements (the latter at one point almost reminiscent of Holst’s Mars from The Planets), and, with the high voices of the London Symphony Chorus making their contribution, the ethereal music of the middle one (Planets echoes, again) was marvellously evocative.

You don’t need to take on board the details of Foulds’ fascination with Indian culture and music to appreciate this – it speaks in its own right.

Perhaps with Messiaen, though, you do need to know the composer’s titles, which are (characteristically) really part of his concepts.

Some of our audience responded straightforwardly to each section of Turangalîla as they heard it, and while the dance-like fifth movement (‘Joy of the Blood of the Stars’) got a warm round of applause, not all the others did, if they got any.

No harm in that, and the playing was distinguished and determined, with a virtuoso piano role from Steven Osborne, and of course the weird electronic wail of the Ondes Martenot played by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie. It didn’t reach quite the ecstatic level I remember at some points in Yan Pascal Tortelier’s performance in the Free Trade Hall around 20 years ago – but this was a different acoustic, and perhaps a more laid-back maestro, too.

But I loved his touches of mystery and winsomeness in the third and fourth movements, and the careful gradations of power and intensity that gave shape to the whole sprawling edifice.



Saturday, 19 September 2015

Manchester Evening News review 19 September 2015

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall


SUNWOOK KIM has become like an old friend for the Hallé since he won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006.

They played with him then (and Sir Mark Elder conducted), and were back together to open the Hallé’s 2015-16 season – this time with Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.

He is not just a great pianist but a real musician. He plays his own centre-stage part brilliantly, but he also knows the entire score, listens to the orchestra and is happy to let others have the limelight.

His own contributions are lyrical, varied and responsive to the flow of the music. This was apparent within a few minutes of the opening of the concerto, and by its end we had heard some skilfully caught moments of mystery and imagination.

Sir Mark obtained an atmospheric sound from the orchestra at the start of the slow movement (the strings’ tone in particular), and Sunwook Kim and they together brought it to a genuine Rachmaninov peak of emotional ardour. The third featured lovely playing from the horns while the soloist had saved his best fireworks for the end: tension built without wandering into self-indulgence, resulting in the maximum impact for the last melodic reprise and final sprint.

It was, in fact, a Russian programme (by composers’ birth, even though Rachmaninov premiered the concerto in New York). Beginning with the prelude from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina – ‘Dawn on the Moscow River’ – which featured the Hallé’s most lovely soft-sweet playing, particularly from the wind and violas, it concluded with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite.

Sir Mark told me this week he sees this as one of those Romantic works delighting in childlike qualities –  telling stories and simple in its effects – and he did not want to exaggerate it.

That comes in contrast to the standard approach (beloved of Russian and most other orchestras, it must be said) of going for walls of sound in the seascapes of the outer sections, and it’s hard to lose the wish for a big impact.

On the other hand the inner movements (about a prince who disguises himself and the gorgeous first-love romance of a young prince and princess) were magical, like the soundtrack to an unseen drama, and the richer sounds benefitted from revealing clarity in the textures, illuminating the score like an old manuscript revealed in its true colours, and from virtuosic orchestral solos including, of course, leader Lyn Fletcher’s solo violin.


Robert Beale

Friday, 18 September 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 18 September 2015

NICOLA BENEDETTI has moved from precociously brilliant violin soloist – winning the BBC Young Musician competition 11 years ago, aged 16 – through pin-up recording star, to national treasure. She was made an MBE in 2013, is known for her commitment to educational and charity work, and always in demand as a concert soloist.

This month, though, she’s embarking on something new: a concert tour titled Italy And The Four Seasons, featuring her own group of musicians playing Vivaldi’s best-known work, plus the sextet version of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir De Florence, and world premiere performances of a piece written by Mark-Anthony Turnage for her and her partner, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich.

It comes to the Bridgewater Hall on September 22.

“I put the programme together,” she says. “It wasn’t one that required any rocket science – it’s inspired by Italy, and Mark-Anthony’s piece has Italy in mind, too.” Her parents, Giovanni and Francesca, are the source of her Italian heritage, although she was born in West Kilbride, brought up in Scotland and still talks like a Scots lassie.

“Vivaldi has been a growing presence in my life in the past couple of years,” she says. “I’ve been working with the Italian musician Andrea Marcon (the founder of the Venice Baroque Orchestra), and I’ve developed a completely different way of interpreting Vivaldi’s personality, his character and his music.”

We heard some of the fruit of that in Manchester a year ago, when she was soloist for The Four Seasons in Manchester Camerata’s concert. She was using a baroque bow and playing on gut strings, in the finest performance of the piece I’d heard for several years.

“This time the musicians and I will be spending a lot of time in rehearsal and I’ll be devising a very personal interpretation of the music,” she says. “I’ll have a free rein to mould things exactly as I like.”

There’s more Vivaldi on the programme, too (his Grosso Mogul in D), and the new piece by Turnage is called Duetti D’Amore (Love Duets). “It was written for Leonard and me, and inspired by our relationship and what Mark-Anthony knows about us.

“It’s a suite, really, in five movements, and it works on a number of different levels.”

Nicola has already recorded Italian music on CD, and showed her Scottish roots in an album last summer (called Homecoming). The next is Shostakovich and Glazunov concertos – due early in 2016.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 11 September 2015

THE BBC Philharmonic’s Bridgewater Hall series begins with a blockbuster on September 19: Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, conducted by Juanjo Mena, with Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing the Ondes Martenot and Steven Osborne the piano. It’s a repeat of their concert at the BBC Proms in mid-August.

Written in 1948, Turangalîla is a visionary work on the theme of love – and the Ondes Martenot is one of the earliest electronic instruments whose Dr Who-ish sound is controlled by the player’s hands.

This is the first of a series mainly based on themes connected with Leonard Bernstein, who died 25 years ago. It taps not only into his own work as composer, but music he conducted (he premiered Turangalîla) and those he learned from, including Serge Koussevitzky (who commissioned Turangalîla).

Philharmonic chief executive Simon Webb says: “We’re trying to give a strong but broad identity to our season. We have taken Bernstein as our core idea and asked how his music-making arose, and what impact it had.

“It leads us to Koussevitzky, to connections between Europe and America, to Mahler – whose conflicts, including those of his Jewishness and his sexuality – he found within himself, too. Our season ends with Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony.

“Bernstein also straddled the pop/classical divide, writing West Side Story and other Broadway shows – something almost unique at that level – and there’s something of that, too.

“The other work in the first programme, though, is British, and British music is one of our other major themes.” It’s Three Mantras, by John Foulds, who was born in Manchester in 1880 (his father played in the Hallé) and interested in the music of the Indian sub-continent, as much as Messiaen was in 1948.

The British theme continues with works by Mark Simpson, the young newly-appointed composer in association of the Phil, and by well-known British names, dotted through the programmes. One concert later in the season includes music by young Manchester-trained composers.

For me, one of the most intriguing programmes is an American-themed one, coming in January. It includes Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony and Billy The Kid suite, a suite from Korngold’s film music for The Adventures Of Robin Hood, a piece by Philip Glass – and, with Jonathan Scott, that Mancunian wizard of the organ console, opening the show, the hilarious piece by Charles Ives called Variations On ‘America’ … which means they’re on the tune we Brits usually call God Save The Queen.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 4 September 2015

WHEN the Hallé Orchestra decided to offer a concert with free admission and the option to ‘pay what you like’, it clearly struck a chord.

Within 24 hours, the performance – on Sunday (September 6) – was a sell-out. If ‘sell-out’ is the right word …

But Hallé Pops conductor Stephen Bell is excited by the concept, particularly because the big majority of those who signed up have not been to a classical concert before.

“It will be informal – people can bring their drinks in and dip in and out of the pieces as they want,” he says. “We haven’t included items we would normally do in a Pops concert, either – but meaty music … real orchestral classics.”

Stephen’s next date here is on October 10, in a film music programme. It’s all by one composer – one of the most versatile writers for the screen – John Williams. His scores include Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Star Wars, Schindler’s List, ET, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and Harry Potter. “With John Williams there’s really an embarrassment of riches,” Stephen says. “And he’s such a craftsman that his music for film now has a life of its own.”

Hallowe’en is on a Saturday this year, and Stephen’s concert for October 31 is suitably called Fright Night, with scary music from films (Harry Potter again, and Psycho among them) and classical pieces about ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night.

Presenter is Alasdair Molloy, a Hallé regular, who you should expect to see in skeleton suit – “and we hope the audience will dress up a bit, too,” says Stephen. Then, on a more serious note, comes a programme on November 21 about the First World War: Keep The Home Fires Burning.

“It’s a re-working of a show for schools which presenter Tom Redmond devised last year,” says Stephen. “It was hugely successful.

“There’ll be a couple of World War One songs, along with classical pieces created during that time or associated with it, and a lot of visual imagery on the screen, all narrated and linked together by Tom.”

He’s got a full schedule of Christmas performances and New Year specials, including another ABBA concert. “Last time we had the whole of the Bridgewater Hall audience on their feet dancing,” he says, misty-eyed. “And then there’s Valentine’s Day, with a very special night of music all about love.”



Manchester Evening News article 28 August 2015

IN this third look ahead to the autumn’s classical highlights I want to flag up some of the superb solo recitals and chamber music performances in store for us in Manchester.

There’s little doubt that the big seller of the autumn at the Bridgewater Hall will be Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang. His programme on November 29 includes Bach’s Italian Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Chopin’s Scherzos.

A great pianist of another generation, John Lill, partners clarinettist Emma Johnson for a duo recital on November 10, in Schumann and Brahms (including Brahms’ Rhapsodies and Intermezzi for piano).

At the Royal Northern College of Music the standout solo event is on October 29, when Peter Donohoe plays the complete Scriabin sonatas (in three sessions, at 7pm, 8.15pm and 9.30pm respectively).

Chamber music concerts at the RNCM are led by Manchester Chamber Music Society’s programmes, opening on September 21 with Ralph Kirshbaum, cello, James Campbell, clarinet, and Martin Roscoe, piano, in Beethoven and Brahms.

The Escher String Quartet appear on October 12, and Nicholas Daniel, oboe, and the Britten Quartet on December 7, while on November 9 there’s a gem of a song recital from tenor James Gilchrist with Anna Tilbrook, piano, consisting of Schumann’s Liederkreis op. 39, Vaughan Williams’ Songs Of Travel, and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

Alice In Wonderland celebrates her 150th year at the RNCM on November 20, when Matthew Trusler, violin, and Ashley Wass, piano, take part in 12 new pieces written to reflect each of the books’s chapters, by composers including Mark-Anthony Turnage and Howard Blake (of Snowman fame).

And – this is really an uncategorizable event, but an unmissable one – on November 24 the Orlando Consort visit the RNCM, with the 1928 silent film by Carl Dreyer, La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc, accompanied by music of Joan of Arc’s own time. It’s already been seen at the Lake District Summer Music festival and elsewhere.

The following night there’s Quatuor Diotima with Christopher Redgate, oboe, in music by Webern, Schoenberg, Fitch and Brian Ferneyhough, and a discussion featuring composer Ferneyhough himself.

Music at the University of Manchester’s concert hall, the Cosmo Rodewald Hall in Coupland Street, is again adorned by Quatuor Danel, with their own lunchtime series and seminars with Professors Barry Cooper (on Beethoven) and David Fanning (on Shostakovich), a joint concert with Alexander Melnikov, piano, on October 2, and a complete Shostakovich string quartet cycle in early December.