Saturday, 30 January 2016

Manchester Evening News review 30 January 2016

BBC PHILHARMONIC  Bridgewater Hall

THE audience for Friday’s BBC Philharmonic programme must have been one of the best for a regular series concert in Manchester this season – showing, once again, that two masterworks and two master musicians on the bill will do the business.

The master musicians were conductor Jesús López-Cobos – a great and vastly experienced Spaniard making his belated debut with the BBC Philharmonic – and familiarly favourite pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

The opening piece (not quite an acknowledged masterwork, and the only one linked to the season’s America-and-Bernstein theme, incidentally) was Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for strings and brass.

López-Cobos made it sound like a masterpiece, though. With a full complement of 60 strings and a wonderful brass choir, he had the resources for a resonant and magisterial sound, making such an effective close of the first section of the music that it gained a little spontaneous applause.

And in the long, slow melody of the second there was a surprisingly passionate atmosphere, opening my eyes, at least, to a new aspect to Hindemith.

A long, slow melody is also the highspot of Ravel’s piano concerto in G, in its serene central movement: Bavouzet played this with all the wistful beauty you could for. He, and López-Cobos, found expressiveness in the bluesy opening movement, too (not always the case), with nostalgia, melancholy and patches of almost infinite sadness catching the listener unawares. It was musicality of the highest order, and the effortless brilliance of the finale proved a show-stopper.

López-Cobos conducted Mahler’s fourth symphony from memory, and he and the Phil (with guest leader Sarah Oates) gave a performance of classic dimensions, skilfully poised and balanced, incorporating mellow smoothness and electric energy.

After the sunlit landscapes of the opening, the ‘Pied Piper’ second movement had a gorgeous lilt to it, with episodes of quicksilver incisiveness, and in the third the strings were sweet, accurate and achingly beautiful, its moment of ecstasy full and noble but not blaring.

The soprano soloist for the finale, Ruby Hughes, has the pure, youthful sound it was surely meant for, and though she was a little over-conscious of the microphone in front of her at first, the gentle blend of voice and orchestra was near-perfect by the end.


Robert Beale

Friday, 29 January 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 29 January 2016

THERE’S a breath of fresh air in Manchester over the coming weeks. The Bridgewater Hall’s spring festival of the outdoors, Echoes Of A Mountain Song, begins on February 6 and continues into April.

It’s a themed series of concerts and supporting events, with the main performances from hall regulars Manchester Camerata, the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic, but there’s a wider aspect too, with the RNCM Brass Band and celebrity singer Sir Thomas Allen on the classical side, plus a range of events including poetry reading and folk music.

It’s all about the call of the hills and moors, the art they have inspired, and the anniversary of the ‘mass trespass’ on Kinder Scout in 1932.

The climax comes on the weekend of St George’s Day (April 23-24), with a concert to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday – April 23 is also the 400th anniversary of his death, and you can bet his alleged ‘Lancashire lost years’ will be played up to the hilt – a celebration of Emily Brontë, and finally the premiere of a specially commissioned folk opera with a predicted cast and ensemble of hundreds.

First off is Manchester Camerata’s concert on February 6, with Gábor Takács-Nagy, which begins with a work called Kinder Scout, by English composer Patrick Hadley, who died in 1973. There’s poetry, too, with Will Ash reading George Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending before Jennifer Pike plays the violin solo in Vaughan Williams’ ever-popular piece inspired by it.

Then come The Walk To The Paradise Garden, from Bradfordian Delius’s opera, A Village Romeo And Juliet – the ‘Paradise Garden’, incidentally, is a hostelry, which fits the concept – and finally (stretching ‘northernness’ to its limit) Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ symphony. Gábor Takács-Nagy conducts.

The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder range far and wide on February 27, including Delius’s Song Of The High Hills (about Norway), Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods, Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs, and finally a trip to the sulphurous nether regions to counter-balance all that fresh air, in Tchaikovsky’s Francesca Da Rimini.

The whole is the inspiration of Peter Davison, artistic advisor of the Bridgewater Hall. “The hills and moors are an inescapable presence and, for generations of Mancunians, have been a place to walk and experience wild nature,” he says.

“It seems to be a fundamental human need to escape urban sprawl and the life of the factory. Being able to access wild places symbolises our desire for freedom of expression.”



Friday, 22 January 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 22 January 2016

BARITONE Peter Brathwaite is a Manchester lad – brought up in Cheetham Hill, went to Bury Grammar School – now making a considerable impact as an opera singer.

He was head chorister at St Ann’s Church in Manchester, toured the world with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and spent his gap year in the choir of Truro Cathedral.

University in Newcastle (and more cathedral choir singing – ‘for a bit of pocket money’) followed, and then the Royal College of Music in London and opera training. He’s also been a fashion model.

But he says the seeds of his opera career were sown in the choir at St Ann’s, trained by the late and near-legendary Ronald Frost.

He’s appeared with the Opéra de Lyon, Glyndebourne Opera, English Touring Opera, the Reisopera in Holland, Opera Holland Park, at Aldeburgh, Brighton, Shakespeare’s Globe in London, and in Budapest.

You may have spotted him as a soloist in a Valentine’s Day concert at the Bridgewater Hall three years ago. Later this year he’s singing in three ETO productions (at Buxton in November).

Peter appears as a solo artist, too, and he’s back in Manchester on January 27 with a fascinating programme he’s devised with video artist James Symonds and pianist Nigel Foster.

The venue is Manchester Jewish Museum in Cheetham Hill, and its theme is the music banned by the Nazis. It’s grimly appropriate for Holocaust Memorial Day, as it tells the story of ‘Degenerate Music’, condemned simply for its creators’ racial origins.

The performance is a critical reconstruction of the infamous Entartete Musik exhibition in Berlin in 1938. It includes songs, cabaret music, the atonal work of Schoenberg and Krenek’s jazz opera, Jonny Spielt Auf, with spoken excerpts from the exhibition pamphlet, and video projections of life in the Weimar Republic.

Peter’s taking it to London in May, and to Berlin, close to the anniversary of the exhibition itself.

“It was devastating to read about the fate of those musicians,” Peter says. “Artists and academics who didn’t fit, according to the Nazis, were either exiled or couldn’t work any more.

“The lucky ones found sanctuary in America or the UK – others were sent to the camps. I was quite startled, too, by the original image used to publicise that exhibition.”

It shows a negro musician, with a Star of David pinned on to him. To the Nazis, both blacks and Jews were ‘degenerate’.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Manchester Evening News review 21 January 2016

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall


SPRINGTIME is coming early for the Hallé this week.

The first of this year’s Opus One concerts – each programme is done three times over at the Bridgewater Hall, with an aggregate audience of arena dimensions – featured Schumann’s ‘Spring’ symphony (no. 1) in a joyful and charming performance conducted by Cristian Mandeal.

The Romanian Mandeal is the orchestra’s former principal guest conductor (from 2005 to 2010), and the old hand has lost none of its cunning.

He began with Brahms’s Variations On A Theme By Haydn, a glorious favourite (never mind that Haydn probably didn’t write the theme in the first place). But there’s always stimulation in a Mandeal performance, and he was not afraid to build a tonal spectrum from the outset that had moments of deep, rasping sound from the contrabassoon and spectacular contrasts.

There was emotional power, nervous energy, even a touch of comedy, and a resonant highpoint in variation six before the melancholy and nostalgia that follow – and a bright, fresh-minted finale from the Hallé, led by Lyn Fletcher.

Sophia Jaffé was the sweet-toned, poetic violin soloist in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, with Hallé harpist Marie Leenhardt partnering her (rightly) in centre stage. It’s not the profoundest music of the 19th century, but the Scottish tunes are pleasant and were splendidly played.

The Schumann symphony had a slightly shaky start in terms of articulation, but once its fast tempo arrived that was redeemed with surging life, and followed by a beautifully poised slow movement – tranquil without slackness, and mellow without turgidity – and a swaying, striding Scherzo.

The finale movement sets some conductors problems: it has to be fast, gracious and make a big enough impact to round off the whole. Mandeal’s solution was wide variation of pace and flexibility of rhythm, which of course has its risks in the matter of keeping everyone together. But rather that than a thousand merely metronomic exercises, and the risks were well worth it for the sense of freedom and, ultimately, exultation they created.

Spring feelings indeed.

Repeated Jan 21 and 24.


Robert Beale

Friday, 15 January 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 15 January 2016

ROMANIAN born pianist Alexandra Dariescu is back at her alma mater, the Royal Northern College of Music, on January 19, in recital – the second of many she’s giving around the UK this year, and a predecessor to the same programme at the Wigmore Hall in London later this month.

“It’s the first time I’ve been back to play at the RNCM since I left in 2008,” she tells me. “It will be very, very special for me to go back.”

She made a big impact while she was here. Alexandra moved to the UK at the age of 17 – she’d been performing in public since she was nine years old – and auditioned in Manchester soon after. After winning the college’s Gold Medal she was selected for promotion by the Young Classical Artists Trust. She’s since played Carnegie Hall in New York and in Geneva, Argentina, South Africa and Germany.

Her engagements this year include concerto appearances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK and a visit to Norway, where she will give the Nordic premiere of Ginastera’s rarely heard Concierto Argentino, with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Storgårds (familiar to us Mancs as principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic).

“It’s a fantastic concerto,” says Alexandra, “and rare because Ginastera withdrew it after the first performance – only one other person has played it recently.”

She’s also appearing with the Hallé and conductor Jamie Phillips (but not in Manchester), and giving the world premiere of a new concerto by Iris ter Schiphorst in Germany.

And she’s been busy recording: her second CD of preludes by Shostakovich and Szymanowski is out on the Champs Hill label (there’ll be a third disc, of Fauré and Messiaen, next year), she’s put down the Tchaikovsky piano concerto no. 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (out in May on Signum), and recorded Emily Howard’s Mesmerism, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Gourlay, due in August on NMC.

Alexandra’s also recently signed with the prestigious German agency Konzertdirektion Schmid as well as Swiss agency Caecilia – “probably two of the most exciting things that have happened to me in the past five years,” she says.

When we last spoke, Alexandra mentioned her enthusiasm for baking (she’s a big Bake-Off fan). But she hasn’t much time in the kitchen these days – “I’m living out of a suitcase now,” she says.


Monday, 11 January 2016

Manchester Evening News review 9 January 2016



THE Bridgewater Hall’s international concert series began on a high with a visit from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields – the conductorless chamber orchestra now in the hands of American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell.

They had an extremely good turn-out for so early in the year, and part of the reason was no doubt the attraction of hearing Bell with his good friend Steven Isserlis in Brahms’s ‘double’ concerto for violin and cello.

That was only one facet of a stunningly good concert, however. Bell seems to have the knack of drawing performances of extraordinary pizzazz from his London players, even in such well-charted territory as Beethoven symphonies. They’re on a project to record them all with him directing, and if the performance of no. 8 in this concert is anything to go by they will be very high up in the competitive heap indeed.

It was a thoroughly 21st century reading: lively speeds, spiky articulation, vivid colours (with nice braying sounds from horns and trumpets and a ‘classical’ timpani sound prominent). In fact the opening chord was almost obliterated by a mighty thwack on the timps, but the timing was perfect and it certainly made you sit up and listen.

Joshua Bell aims for tremendous bite in Beethoven’s livelier rhythms, which didn’t quite come together at the start of the finale, but vivacity and drive were there throughout. The second movement was almost comic in its chug-chug regularity, and the Trio of the third was beautifully played (and contrasted) by all concerned.

The concert programme offered a solo with orchestra by each of the big names: Isserlis in a magical account of Dvořák’s Silent Woods (balance didn’t come quite right until the middle section, but it was worth the wait), and Bell in the rarely heard second movement of Schumann’s violin concerto, in an arrangement with codetta, for strings only, made by Britten. In point of fact this turned out to be a duo for violin and solo cello with orchestra for much of its length: it was another spell-binding experience.

The double concerto began with an accident: Steven Isserlis dropped his bow just before the big entry at the start and they had to begin again. No matter – it was a well-honed reading of great excellence, with soloists who are perfectly suited to each other’s styles. The playing had tender beauty as well as incisive energy, and the third movement was affirmative and joyous – a true testament of friendship, as Brahms intended it to be.


Robert Beale

Friday, 8 January 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 8 January 2016

THE BBC Philharmonic’s exploration of The American Way – mainly marking the life, work and likes of Leonard Bernstein – takes a lively plunge into 2016 at the Bridgewater Hall with some real fun music (January 16).

Conductor is John Wilson, the cool Geordie lad who’s become a favourite for his reconstructions of vintage movie scores. On the programme are works by Aaron Copland (his suite from Billy The Kid and his Organ Symphony), Erich Korngold (his suite from The Adventures Of Robin Hood), Philip Glass and Charles Ives.

And the soloist is our own organist supreme, Jonathan Scott – often heard at the console of the hall’s big pipe organ in solo recitals and supporting orchestras. Jonathan is one half of the hyper-talented Scott Brothers Duo, with his pianist-animator brother Tom (who’s playing celeste in the same concert), and they’ve just released their latest organ and piano duo CD.

The Scotts come from Failsworth and were trained at Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music. Say’s Jonathan: “Our grandfather came from Oldham – in fact he lived next door to William Walton’s family at one time.

“I always wanted to play something. It was the violin at first – but I failed the clapping test at school so I didn’t get one.

“But I went for piano lessons, when I was 10, with this amazing old lady called Marion Barnett. She must have been in her 80s then. She only charged 50p a lesson.

“Opportunity is a big thing in music. I’m amazed when I think back about how we became musicians. It was really a series of flukes and chances.

“But our mum and dad have always been great, and we often play things to them and ask their opinions. They were always supportive. And the great thing about Chet’s is that anyone can get in there so long as they can really play an instrument.”

Jonathan is in demand widely, but true to his Mancunian roots. “Manchester is a brilliant place to play – people are so supportive,” he says. “There’s a friendly feeling about concerts here.”

Hopefully there’ll be a few chuckles, too, at this BBC Philharmonic concert. It starts with Jonathan as soloist in Charles Ives’s Variations On America. ‘America’ is the stateside name for the tune we call God Save The Queen, and Ives’s variations on it are probably the only laugh-out-loud music ever written for the classical organ.



Article published in Manchester Evening News 31 December 2015

IT’S going to be an exciting year for classical music in 2016.

There are two imaginative and unusual festivals on the way at the Bridgewater Hall, the Royal Northern College of Music is hosting ground-breaking music theatre events, and Hallé St Peter’s and the nearby St Michael’s (another former church transformed into a community resource), in Ancoats, are opening up cultural life in the Northern Quarter of Manchester as never before.

Echoes Of A Mountain Song is the title of the Bridgewater Hall’s own spread-out festival, from February to April, taking in music both classical and folk, literary themes (including Shakespeare’s birthday), and love of the outdoors. The Hallé, BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Camerata, the RNCM Brass Band, baritone Sir Thomas Allen, pianist Clare Hammond and others are contributing.

‘The music and poetry of northern landscapes’ is its sub-title, and the climax is the first performance of a community opera, Get Weaving, written by Alison Prince and Andrew Keeling. It commemorates and brings into present-day focus the ‘mass trespass’ of ramblers on Kinder Scout in 1932.

In May comes the Hallé’s own festival of Dvořák, titled Nature, Life And Love. A sequence of seven concerts (May 5-21) is conducted by Sir Mark Elder, including the final three symphonies, The Golden Spinning Wheel (four symphonic poems), and the oratorio Saint Ludmilla, written for the Leeds Festival of 1886 and performed in Manchester by the Hallé (though not in the end conducted by Hallé  himself, who was ill) soon afterwards.

Actors, musicians and film will tell the story of the ‘New World’ symphony; Dvořák’s cello concerto, piano concerto and Slavonic Dances feature, too.

At the RNCM the New Music North West festival at the end of January includes the world premiere of Mysterious 44, an opera by Kevin Malone. There’s a performance by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Duncan Ward, of Icarus At The Edge Of Time, a film with a score by Philip Glass (north west premiere, 6 February). And Music Theatre Wales offer The Devil Inside, a new opera by Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh, on February 16.

More new music comes from Manchester’s Psappha, with the first live BBC broadcast from St Michael’s Ancoats on January 7, Tunde Jegede’s Kora Concerto (world premiere, Hallé St Peter’s, January 15), Harrison Birtwistle at St Michael’s (January 29), Stockhausen and Ligeti (February 18) and the Contemporary Music For All Festival of New Music’s Open Score project on February 27. That’s just the beginning …