Monday, 29 February 2016

Manchester Evening News review 28 February 2016

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall

THERE was a nice irony in the Hallé’s contribution to the Echoes Of A Mountain Song open-air-and-landscape series at the Bridgewater Hall, in that it took us to the mountain tops in the first half … and the second sphere of hell at the end. Right to roam, indeed.

The centrepiece was Delius’s A Song Of The High Hills – a choral symphony in effect – written in 1912 and one of the Yorkshire-born composer’s most powerful extended pieces.

I find his harmonic style at this point more telling than in some later ones, as it finds periodic anchorages amid its tonal slithering, with less of a feeling of mental sea-sickness. That was helped by Sir Mark Elder’s clear account of its long paragraphs and the hymn-like structure of much of its melodic flow.

And there’s a spiritual aspect to its evocation, too. Who else would mark the summit of a mountain climb with quiet and gentle singing from the wordless chorus, rather than a blast of orchestral triumph?

This account made the case for its being a great work indeed, and there are two remarkable climaxes in which the orchestra made its presence felt, complete with six horn parts, two harps, seven timpani and 60 strings, all skilfully controlled and articulated along with the Hallé Choir’s accomplished contribution and the purity of soloists Malin Christensson (soprano) and Robin Tritschler (tenor).

That the whole massive construction, from softest whisper to richest paean, never lost momentum was due to Elder’s sympathy for its language and expertise in its idiom.

The remainder of the concert was more of a conundrum. Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods, chosen presumably because Delius once lived in Norway, was  certainly a contrast – neo-classical, but sounding somewhat thin with 32 strings only (neo-classical style from the mid-20th century is by no means the same as classical style as we now know it: they did things differently then). The bouncy finale was the most ingratiating movement.

Then it was Russian gloom for the second half. Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs were a good demonstration piece for the Hallé Choir and their language skills, and accompanied with vivid colour by the orchestra, but the singers knew their stuff so well the two seemed somewhat disconnected at one point.

Finally, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca Da Rimini, a tone poem about those who make mistakes being condemned to everlasting torment. Sir Mark whipped all the furies of the inferno into action in his excited reading, with a tremendous vision of the abyss.


Robert Beale

Friday, 26 February 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 26 February 2016

THERE are two international conductors called Petrenko – one is music director designate of the Berlin Philharmonic and until recently hardly known outside Russia and Germany: he’s Kirill Petrenko.

The other is closer to home. He’s Vasily Petrenko, lives on the Wirral, and is the dynamic young maestro of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He’s overseen a revival in its reputation, and brought it to the Bridgewater Hall before.

More recently he’s also become chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, one of Denmark’s best – a relationship just extended until at least 2020 – and they’re beginning a UK tour at the Bridgewater Hall on Monday, March 7.

He was born in Leningrad in 1976. His parents were musical, but not professionally so. “My dad played double bass with a group of young people who tried to reproduce traditional jazz,” he says. “My mother was a teacher.”

But he was gifted: he sang, and learned the piano and other instruments. He joined a top boys’ choir and was educated at music school, followed by the St Petersburg Conservatoire.

“Under the Soviet system, I would have been qualified to be a choir conductor. But then the whole system collapsed, and I knew there was no future for me in that direction. I had to learn to be an opera and orchestral conductor.”

He studied with the best – Ilya Musin, Mariss Jansons, Temirkanov and Salonen among them – and at the age of 18 was conducting classical opera for children.

He started winning international competitions and in 2009 became chief conductor of the RLPO.

If they were taking a bit of a punt on him, it’s been spectacularly successful. His recordings have been enthusiastically received, he’s got honours from all three Merseyside universities, and been made an ‘Honorary Scouser’ by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool.

“I have the right to cross the Mersey for free, as long as I use my own transport,” he says. “I still haven’t discovered what it will cost to buy a boat ...”

What’s special about the Oslo sound, I asked? “It’s very rich. I think the Scandinavians have more fire in them than other people, but the trick is to let the fire out.

“Last year we sold more tickets than ever, and we hope to build a new concert hall. We have appeared at the Edinburgh Festival – next we hope to visit Asia, Europe and America, and make new recordings.”

Friday, 19 February 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 19 February 2016

VIVALDI specialists La Serenissima play the Bridgewater Hall tonight, featuring the ever-popular Four Seasons concertos.

Nothing unusual there, you might think – Nicola Benedetti played The Four Seasons in September, Kennedy played them last month …

But there is something special this time, as La Serenissima are using their own edition, created by director Adrian Chandler from the unique ‘Manchester manuscript’ of The Four Seasons, from the Henry Watson Music Library, in Central Library.

“When you hear it, you’ll say ‘That’s The Four Seasons’,” Adrian told me. “There’s nothing actually new in it – but the manuscript, which is in Vivaldi’s father’s handwriting, gives us a high level of detail about the bowings and other devices Vivaldi uses which are not specified in the earliest engraved edition.

“There is also a notable difference in the first movement of Spring, where there’s a thunder-and-lightning effect, about half way through, made by first and second violins playing rushing upward scales – in the Manchester edition the two parts play them staggered rather than in unison, which is a much more convincing effect.

“And in the last movement of Winter, where we hit the final tutti (all players together), there are two chunks in the Manchester version that are down to the leader to play solo. The orchestral fiddles are quite happy about that, as it’s a bit difficult to play anyway!”

The ‘Manchester collection’ of Vivaldi’s and other Italian composers’ music was bequeathed to the Henry Watson Music Library in 1965 by music historian and collector Newman Flower – who had bought it in 1918 from the then Earl of Aylsford.

Its origins involve a trip to Italy by a man sent by Charles Jennens (Handel’s collaborator in compiling the texts for the oratorio, Messiah), with instructions to get him some quality music. It seems he managed to buy the manuscripts at an auction held to meet the debts of the recently deceased Cardinal Ottoboni, who had been in Venice at the time Vivaldi was writing.

The collection includes some Vivaldi works unknown anywhere else – the ‘Manchester Sonatas’ – and a lot more, including works by Albinoni and other composers who, as Adrian Chandler puts it, ‘don’t get out much these days’.

Tonight he’s playing more Vivaldi: two bassoon concertos (soloist Peter Whelan), and two concertos for violin ‘in tromba marina’ – using a reconstruction of an instrument from the period which was made to sound extra loud.


Monday, 15 February 2016

Manchester Evening News review 15 February 2016

BBC PHILHARMONIC  Bridgewater Hall

THERE’S no doubting the emotional appeal of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony. A standing ovation from many in the audience greeted the Philharmonic and chief conductor Juanjo Mena at the end of Saturday night’s performance.

You might almost have thought they’d won the Second World War with it themselves. But that’s the attraction of a piece where we know the back story – probably the most straightforwardly heroic role of a piece of classical music in the 20th century, as it was largely written in the besieged city in 1941 and then defiantly played by a half-starved orchestra and blasted over loudspeakers at the German troops. If we had Churchill’s speeches, they had Shostakovich’s music.

But what do you make of it in today’s world? It’s become good box office for orchestras: we hear it in Manchester fairly regularly, and the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder did it not so long ago and issued a CD, too.

Juanjo Mena made the most of its musical virtues and expertly covered its weaknesses, and was rewarded with superlative playing from the huge, expanded orchestra (with guest leader Gordan Tragkovic). If he obtained brutally sustained, pulsing mechanical noise in the ‘invasion theme’ section of the first movement, it was balanced by thoughtful, deeply felt playing in the static passages before and after it, with beautifully tuned clarity and gentle sensitivity.

The second movement was notable for eloquent solos and the finely balanced wind choir, and after the third brought telling stridency in its central section, the fourth had sustained, frenzied energy and contrasted it with magical quietness.

Its ending was wonderfully played and brought the crowd to their feet, as it was no doubt originally designed to do. Congratulations to all concerned for sheer stamina and commitment.

It all came as a real contrast with the first part of the concert – Bartók’s third piano concerto, delightfully played by soloist Dejan Lazić. From the very first paragraphs it was clear that here was a soloist prepared to make a contribution by musicality and not just show off.

He was fully equal to the piece, of course, but I admired the restraint of his playing as much as the brilliance that came with it. His contribution to the second movement built to a peak of heartfelt conviction, and there was, with Juanjo Mena’s help, a vividly episodic last movement and a thrilling finish.


Robert Beale

Friday, 12 February 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 12 February 2016

MUSIC Theatre Wales – one of the liveliest outfits at the cutting edge of opera today – bring a fascinating new work to the Royal Northern College of Music on February 16.

It’s The Devil Inside, written by Louise Welsh and composed by Stuart MacRae, based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The tale’s a weird one, with echoes of the Faust legend, in which two young guys stumble on a bottle with magical powers. Stevenson called his story The Bottle Imp, and, like the genie of the lamp, the imp inside the bottle can make anything you wish for come true … but there’s a catch.

The bottle has to be bought and sold from one person to another, and the holder must always re-sell it for less than was paid for it – or be cursed to suffer eternal damnation.

So it’s about dicing with the Devil, in an upside-down, pass-the-parcel world where the thing that can do most for you (or anyone else) must always lose monetary value if you are not to regret it in the long run.

The two men who persuade each other to buy the magic bottle, taking a risk for the sake of the benefits it seems to promise, have high hopes at first. One becomes fabulously wealthy, and when his beautiful wife discovers she is dying, he’s able to wish her back to health.

The other is haunted by desire for it, which itself is eating him from inside. There’s an implied link with the idea of addiction, where the thing that you feel does wonders for you is simultaneously destroying you.

That’s an aspect of the story that’s brought out really well in this production and in the performances of the four singers Nicholas Sharratt, Ben McAteer, Rachel Kelly and Steven Page.

I saw it at the London premiere last week, and the piece is certainly stimulating in the dilemmas it expresses. The musical style is varied: edgy and nervous at the opening and in some later scenes, atmospheric and dramatic (as befits an operatic work), using tonality for contrast rather than a basis.

And the casting is spot-on. Nicholas Sharratt and Steven Page are well known to Manchester audiences through work with Opera North and others; Ben McAteer has sung with Clonter Opera; and Rachel Kelly is, like him, a Samling scholar and an undoubted star in the making.


Friday, 5 February 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 5 February 2016

IT’S Valentine’s Day on February 14, and the Hallé are marking the occasion with a concert at the Bridgewater Hall, with conductor Stephen Bell.

Soprano soloist is Natalya Romaniw, a young lady whom I spotted six years ago when she was guesting with Manchester Camerata on New Year’s Day. I said then she was undoubtedly going places.

She has, and she is. She’d already represented Wales in Cardiff Singer of the World, and she won the Clonter Opera Prize, at the base for training young singers in Cheshire, while still studying, and went on to take the leading role in Lucia di Lammermoor at Clonter in 2011.

The following year she won both the Song Prize and the outright first prize in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards in London.

She went to Houston Grand Opera on their young artists programme, and since returning to her home base in Swansea has sung with Opera Holland Park, Glyndebourne Touring Opera (the Governess in The Turn Of The Screw), as a Rhinemaiden for Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall and as a Valkyrie back in Houston.

Recently she’s been singing for Danish National Opera, in February she’s the Foreign Princess in Rusalka for Scottish Opera, and then tragic heroine Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for Garsington Opera.

Despite her name, Natalya is Welsh through and through, as you realize the moment you hear her speaking voice. Her mum and dad are both police officers. But her grandfather was Ukrainian and played the accordion, so it looks as if she has him to thank for the musical gene. “Apart from that, we don’t know where it came from,” she says.

She knew she could sing by the age of 11 and liked the idea of being in musical theatre, but didn’t take classical singing lessons until she was 16. She trained at the Guildhall School in London, and never looked back.

Natalya is relishing the chance to sing passionate love music with the Hallé. “It does appeal to me,” she says. “I’m always playing someone who’s either dying or madly in love.

“My favourites will be Un Bel Di and the Act 1 duet from Madame Butterfly” – but there’s also the Act 1 finale from La Bohème, Somewhere from West Side Story, and more besides, with David Butt Philip the tenor soloist.

“I adore all the music,” says Natalya. “It won’t feel like work.”