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.”


Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Manchester Evening News review 7 October 2015

MICHAEL KENNEDY MEMORIAL CONCERT   Royal Northern College of Music


MANCHESTER has seen nothing like it, and probably never will again. Three knights of the realm, one dame, and nearly 20 more of the world’s top opera singers on the same platform to celebrate the memory of a great writer, Mancunian and, as they would all have said, friend.

Michael Kennedy was a journalist, author and critic who loved this city and loved music. The extent to which musicians loved him was apparent from a night of extraordinary music, involving the Hallé Orchestra, Royal Northern College of Music Orchestra, and other musicians, all giving their services in aid of the Michael Kennedy Memorial Fund, which will help RNCM students in the future.

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé, and Sir Andrew Davis conducted both the Hallé and RNCM orchestras, and among the singers were winners of the award for Strauss singing endowed by Michael Kennedy and his wife, Joyce, herself as much loved as him and there to hear it all. Sir John Tomlinson and Dame Felicity Lott were among the singers.

I don’t intend to dwell on details of each item in the programme, but its breadth of sympathy was evident from the inclusion of Verdi, Bizet, Mozart, Britten, Elgar and even Haydn Wood’s Roses Of Picardy and the Britten version of The Last Rose Of Summer, lovingly sung by Kathryn Rudge.

Among the most magical moments were Susan Bickley’s singing of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, by Mahler, and Sir John Tomlinson’s vivid delivery of the Sachs monologue from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That, in its rueful rejection of the madness of the world and dedication to achievement and work, was as true a reflection of Michael Kennedy’s character as any.

There were contributions, too, from Harish Shankar, conducting the RNCM Orchestra with soloist Lawrence Perkins of Manchester Camerata in Elgar’s Romance for bassoon.

But the most glorious music was that to end each part of the concert: first Vaughan Williams’ Serenade To Music, for 16 soloists, in a roll-call maybe unequalled since it was first sung in honour of Sir Henry Wood in 1938: including Rebecca Evans, Joan Rodgers, Susan Bullock, Lee Bisset, Susan Bickley, Marie McLaughlin, Kathleen Smales, Wendy Dawn Thompson, Christopher Turner, Paul Nilon, Richard Berkeley Steele, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Roderick Williams, Philip Smith and Sir John Tomlinson.

And lastly the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, sung by Dame Felicity Lott, Rebecca Evans and Alice Coote – music of unsurpassable beauty and expressing the greatness of spirit with which few are blessed.

Michael was almost certainly the last of a 150-year succession of music critics originating from the north west – Henry Chorley, Ernest Newman and Neville Cardus before him, autodidacts and all connected with Hallé or his orchestra – who became nationally influential figures.

No one ever erected a statue to a music critic, said Sibelius in one of his grumpier moods. Well, we have a bust of Cardus in Manchester … and in Kennedy we have the memory of a man whom, uniquely, all musicians loved.


Robert Beale

Monday, 5 October 2015

Manchester Evening News review 5 October 2015



THIS was the first really big event of the new Hallé season. Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé Orchestra and Choir (trained by guest choral conductor Robert Dean) in Verdi’s Requiem.

It’s one of the most popular choral works in the repertory now, and has been ever since Verdi himself took a picked team of soloists and musicians on tour with it in 1875 (giving the first UK performances in the Royal Albert Hall). But the earliest British conductor to put it on with British forces was Charles Hallé, in March 1876 in Manchester, so we have something of a special claim to it.

It’s often called an opera in the guise of a sacred work, and there’s no doubt that several passages sound like the soundtrack to a great spectacle. It’s certainly true that you need soloists with an operatic sense of drama and passion to hear it at its best, and even better if at least some of them are Italian. We had Maria Agresta, Giorgio Berrugi and Gianlucca Buratto, top-flight opera performers all, with the peerless, Manchester-trained Alice Coote as mezzo soprano.

And of course Sir Mark Elder can hardly prevent himself from presenting the Requiem as a drama, with a few blatant touches of theatre such as the Bridgewater Hall makes easy. We had two big bass drums for the thunderclaps of the Dies Irae, and the four off-stage trumpets made their own entrance in apocalyptic style.

But the music was also invested with tenderness and some of the most magical moments of quiet I’ve ever heard. The prayers of the text sounded like real prayers (the agonized Kyrie eleison and devout Hostias et preces wonderfully sung by the soloists), and there were beautifully interwoven lines of melody in the Agnus dei.

Sir Mark always finds the spring in rhythmic figures, and had his chorus with him in the Rex tremendae and a lovely cradle song in the Recordare.

The soloists made individual contributions of great distinction and character, Gianlucca Buratto awe-struck in rendering Mors stupebit, Giorgio Berrugi pure and eloquent throughout, Alice Coote vividly alert in Liber scriptus and unsurpassable in ensemble, and Maria Agresta simply angelic in the Offertory and lovely to hear in the Libera me.

And the choir were on very good form indeed, the soprano voices clear and accurate. The fugal Sanctus is always their highspot in this piece, and I was thrilled to hear them romp through it at a tremendous lick and reach the climactic cadence with a glorious surge of sound.



Robert Beale

Friday, 2 October 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 2 October 2015

ON October 8 Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé in Mahler’s sixth symphony.

It’s a massive work (80 minutes long) and spans joy, tragedy and every emotion in between. It’s part of the series of concerts in the Hallé series with ‘Fate’ as their connecting theme.

It will be the first time Sir Mark has conducted the work with the Hallé, though he’s done it elsewhere (including a performance with the young musicians of Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester recently).

“I really admire it for its idea of a symphonic journey,” he told me. “It’s so different from his fifth symphony, which is a progress from darkness to light.

“It’s disturbing and agitated and it has high drama – but I treasure the moments when he uses his vast orchestra to create delicate, but entirely different passages.

“We will have four harps and three celestas: when they are heard with everyone else playing very quietly there’s a colour there that no other Romantic composer achieved.”

He knows very well that the symphony poses its problems. One is the order in which to play the inner movements. Mahler originally wrote his scherzo (in faster tempo) as the second movement, but in practice performed it third, after the slow movement.

“There’s no question that you can do it either way,” says Sir Mark, “but to me, after the optimism of the end of the first movement, and the ecstasy and romance of the slow movement, to return to this breathless, pounding music, which then sinks and collapses is a wonderful bridge to the drama of the fourth movement.

Another question surrounds the fatalistic hammer blows of the last movement – each written at a point of climax, and thought to represent for the composer crushing blows in his life – the end of his marriage, the collapse of his health and the death of his daughter. “Mahler later took the third one out because he couldn’t bear to hear it, but the music that follows it is so much an elegy, an expression of mourning, that it doesn’t make sense without it.”

For the hammer, which the score says should sound like an axe felling a tree, the Hallé will use a specially made box first used by their colleagues in Liverpool. “It will be raised up so everyone can see it … that’s the drama of the piece,” says Sir Mark.