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