Saturday, 28 January 2017

Review of St Petersburg Philharmonic concert 27th January 2017

It was very much the performance as expected from the St Petersburg Philharmonic under their veteran chief conductor Yuri Temirkanov. But that is saying a very great deal: they are one of the greatest orchestras in the world, and their sound is quite inimitable.

This is what orchestras used to sound like in the golden age. There are 65 strings, with the extra cellos and basses (by proportion, and in comparison with what we usually consider a large orchestra) lending marvellous depth of tone, and Temirkanov enhances the effect (already considerable because of the committed way they play) by tucking his brass away at the side of the platform.

Never look at the brass – it only encourages them, Richard Strauss used to say. Well, he does look at them, but they certainly know their place. The orchestra is dominated by its strings and percussion. And (as we soon heard in the Adagio Of Spartacus And Phrygia from Khachaturian’s ballet, Spartacus – aka the Onedin Line theme) it’s an orchestra that breathes and sings its music. Temirkanov’s baton-less beat is clear but wonderfully flexible, and they know how to follow it and sound spontaneous while retaining unanimity.

The other Spartacus excerpt – Dance of the Gaditranian Maidens and Victory of Spartacus – may not be greatest music ever written, but it was richly coloured and glamorously presented. Temirkanov was even almost seen to smile.

Then came Nicolai Lugansky, one of Russia’s greatest virtuoso pianists (possibly the last of a long tradition of hot-house brilliance schooled from infancy), in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini. A reduced string body allowed the orchestra to provide beautifully precise articulation in the lighter, faster passages … we never could forget that theme was written for violin and by Paganini! The playing was full of rhythmic life and there was some glorious expressive playing in the real Russian manner – they even managed to make the lovely major-key variation 18 sound melancholic, just as with the Adagio from Spartacus.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is meant to be a showpiece for orchestra, with its vital solo role for violin (expertly played by leader Lev Klychkov) and its lovely horn and woodwind solos. Oddly, things began a little less precisely than before and somewhat lifelessly: maybe trying too hard to make the piece sound ‘symphonic’ (though that’s a word they over-used in the 19th century to mean anything where an early theme gets transformed or reprised as the work goes on).

But once Temirkanov put his spectacles on again in the second movement and gave his principals a gleaming spotlight (the horn solos were faultless, and the principal oboe followed the maestro’s every twitch) it took off properly. The third wove its familiar Romantic spell, and the fourth ended with a striking sound-balance in the final bars as Klychkov’s pianissimo high harmonic hovered over the gentle growl of those rich cellos and basses.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Article published in Manchester Evening News 27th January 2017

THIRTY years ago a Saturday morning ‘coffee concert’ series started in Didsbury, Manchester, to give students from the Royal Northern College of Music the chance to perform ‘out of school’.

Emmanuel Church, Barlow Moor Road, was chosen, with support from the then rector, the Rev David Hallatt, and Bryan Fox of the RNCM (who’s still in charge) set things in motion. They’re still going, over 600 concerts later.

To celebrate, there’ll be a special event on January 31 – this time in the music college concert hall – with some of the most notable of those who have appeared in Didsbury. They include guitar maestro Craig Ogden, international piano soloist Alexandra Dariescu, the Navarra String Quartet, and world music ensemble Kabantu – known as Project Jam Sandwich in their earlier life.

‘We started, on a brilliantly sunny January day, with the fastest Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba I’ve ever heard, played by four saxophones,’ says Bryan. ‘They’re now the Apollo Saxophone Quartet.’

Concerts are fortnightly, with just over 20 each year – and the coffee is top quality, like the music. ‘We began with the sort anyone can get over the counter, but we weren’t happy with that,’ Bryan remembers. ‘So we went to The Cheese Hamlet, a local delicatessen, and spent the summer devising our own blend. We’ve served it ever since.

‘We have an amazing team of volunteers, some of whom have been giving up their Saturday mornings for years. They serve fresh croissants and biscuits, and some of our regulars come well before the concert start time of 11am. There’s a 20-minute interval, and we’re usually through by 1pm.’

Bryan says the church’s acoustic is wonderful for anything from a solo guitar to a 15-piece cello ensemble (and they’ve had both), and particularly the sound of a string quartet. Other young players who appeared and are big names today are pianist Steven Osborne, cellist Alice Neary and conductor Garry Walker (then a cellist).

So what’s been special about the Didsbury concerts?

‘Our students at the RNCM are constantly under the microscope, whether it’s their mentors or themselves,’ says Bryan. ‘Sometimes it prevents them from being uninhibited – but being in a different place, with a welcoming atmosphere, can make a remarkable difference to their music. You only have to look at the visitors’ book we’ve kept since day one: they often just say how much they enjoyed it.’

Friday, 20 January 2017

Review of Psappha's concert at Hallé St Peter's on 19th January 2017

Psappha, Manchester’s leading contemporary music performing group, is coming to the end of a year celebrating its 25th anniversary. This has included a joint tour with the Hebrides Ensemble (which called at Salford University in November), but in a way the main event so far was a concert at Hallé St Peter’s – just round the corner from St Michael’s, Ancoats, where the group is now based – consisting of two works by Peter Maxwell Davies and a world premiere by David Horne.

Maxwell Davies’ Stedman Doubles, in its original version for clarinet and three percussionists, and Eight Songs For A Mad King have become two of Psappha’s calling cards, and, since Max was Psappha’s inspiration, Patron and (in 2014) guest in a memorable concert celebrating his 80th birthday in this venue, there was something right about bringing his music back to Manchester again.

Stedman Doubles was indeed written for Manchester performance, by students, in 1955. It was deemed unplayable at the time and languished for 40 years (although Max made a version employing just one percussionist in the 1960s). He said it was influenced by Indian classical rhythmic practice and raga improvisation, and hearing it today the major impression (apart from how far ahead of its time it was) is that of the twinkly-eyed Max having fun. There are touches of humour – those points that are just too neat and twee to be simulations of real Indian style – and throughout a sense that Western, motoric rhythms keep nosing in enough to make the whole thing sound, as we would have said then, just cool.

Eight Songs, with the solo performed by Kelvin Thomas, who has become Psappha’s regular partner in the work, is another thing again. Almost as much theatre piece as concert item, it casts the instrumental ensemble members as bullfinches, with little beaked face masks, as well as keepers of the mad King George III. Once you get over the shock of simulated insanity in music, its content becomes very serious indeed, and challenging to its audience. Yet there are still moments of humour, particularly the send-ups of others’ styles, from Handel’s Messiah (contemporary to George) onwards. This was a virtuoso performance by all concerned.

David Horne’s Resonating Instruments was commissioned by Psappha for this occasion and puts their familiar team of violinist Ben Holland, cellist Jenny Langridge, flautist Conrad Marshall, clarinettist Dov Goldberg and pianist Benjamin Powell alongside a solo role for Tim Williams on the cimbalom.

What an attractive instrument the cimbalom is! You can hear it in rural Austrian hotels as an easy-listening background evening entertainment, and giving folkish touches in some orchestral scores, but maybe it’s time it had its place in the spotlight for serious music, too.

It works a bit like a piano with human hands guiding two mobile hammers, instead of fingers on a keyboard, but there’s a sustaining pedal with damping mechanism that enables resonances to build and be built, which is the aspect of its sound David Horne has seized upon. The accompanying instruments imitate its tremolos and figurations as well as creating their own ‘sympathetic’ vibrations, and Horne exploits the solo instrument’s considerable dynamic range from aggressive twanging to gentle whispers that can interchange with pianissimos from the others.

He also explores both the lowest and highest registers of the sound, and gives the other instrumentalists virtuosic solos as well as the main protagonist. At around 25 minutes it was maybe a smidgeon too long, but as a piece d’occasion to celebrate a visionary artistic leader and the group of brilliant musicians with whom he works it was perfect.

Article published in Manchester Evening News 20th January 2017

IT’S Brass Band Festival time again at the Royal Northern College of Music, and this year’s theme is ‘Hands Across The Sea’ – a tribute to transatlantic links, with US visitors the James Madison University Brass Band joining the UK’s finest.

It’s the only event in Britain which brings all the top bands together in a non-competitive environment, and among those appearing are the Black Dyke Band, the Fairey Band, Foden’s Band, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and the Cory Band.

Artistic director Paul Hindmarsh has organized a programme that also highlights the work of composer Martin Ellerby (60 this year), Howard Snell’s 80th birthday and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band’s centenary, and there will be eight world premiere performances and five UK premieres.

“The best US bands are comparable with the top bands in England,” says Paul, “and they play a lot of British repertoire as well as US composers. There’s a connecting factor too, in our programmes – the use of hymn tunes. Two of the pieces in the Fairey Band’s concert (by Bruce Broughton and James Curnow) are based on hymns, and I thought ‘Why not include a Vaughan Williams piece which is very hymn-like (Variations), and Wilfred Heaton’s Meditation on Joseph Parry’s Aberystwyth (known as the tune for Jesu, Lover Of My Soul)?”

That concert’s at 11am on January 28. The afternoon (3.30pm) one is by the Tredegar Town Band and includes The Pilgrim’s Progress by Philip Wilby, inspired by the Martin Shaw tune we know as He Who Would Valiant Be, while Celestial Prospect by Wilfred Heaton is based on an American gospel song.

Foden’s, on the Saturday night, and Black Dyke the night before, feature works by Altrincham composer Martin Ellerby, and the Cory Band programme (6.30pm Sunday January 29) includes his Cabaret Concerto, one of the few piano concertos written to be played with brass band – soloist is Benjamin  Powell.

This concert is to be recorded by the BBC and broadcast soon afterwards in a week featuring brass band music on Radio 3. It ends with a piece by Philip Sparke called Raveling, Unraveling – “a kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of La Valse”, Paul Hindmarsh calls it.

And there’s much more to the festival, including the RNCM and Junior RNCM Brass Bands, and a showing of the D W Griffiths silent film from 1909, The Salvation Army Lass, with a brass band score by Dorothy Gates.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Arts Desk review of BBC Philharmonic concert on 13th January 2017

Colin Matthews’ arrangements for orchestra of the 24 Debussy Préludes (originally commissioned by the Hallé) have been widely admired. The BBC Philharmonic’s concert, conducted by Nicholas Collon, at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday night began with three of Ravel’s five piano Miroirs, two of them orchestrated by Matthews (one a world premiere) and one by the late Steven Stucky.

The Matthews approach to Debussy has been compared in places to Ravel’s own orchestral technique (though a direct claim that he transcribed Debussy as Ravel might have done seems over-egging the pudding somewhat). His versions of the Préludes are immensely skilful reconstructions in ensemble terms of music written for the sonorities of the modern piano – much more than transcriptions. He has realised implied melodic lines, changed figurations wholesale, used every trick in the book to find equivalence to the harmonic haze a sustaining pedal can create, and even on occasion changed keys, added extra bars and transformed tempi.

So it was particularly intriguing to hear what he does with Ravel – especially because we know Ravel himself as a master orchestrator, and yet one of his most well-known arrangements (Pictures at an Exhibition) is remarkably faithful to the original notes of Mussorgsky.

Oiseaux Tristes was the first to be heard (the BBC Philharmonic and Collon premiered this at the Proms in 2015), with ingenious rendering of the birdsong effects and a large orchestra to create the evanescent, impressionist background. Fellow-composer Stucky wrote his version of Noctuelles in 2001 and it makes an interesting contrast: slightly brasher in its climax, but brilliantly clear in tracing the textural lines. The new one, La vallée des cloches, is labelled by Matthews ‘in memoriam Steven Stucky’ and sure enough it seems to have taken on some aspects of the Stucky approach.

To make bell sounds there had to be plenty of percussion, of course, and the employment of celesta, vibraphone, crotales, gongs, tubular bells, glockenspiel and harps is plangently effective, while in the middle section Matthews has created quite a lush sound, with strings in octaves. Ravel’s harmonic language remains his own through all three of these transformations, and the musical results in each make a dazzling orchestral canvas, which was coolly and subtly realized by the BBC Philharmonic under Collon’s guidance.

There was a chance to hear Ravel’s own orchestral writing immediately afterwards, in the form of the Concerto for the Left Hand, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet the soloist.

No doubt Ravel himself would rarely have felt confident enough to demand such an army of percussionists as in the works we had just heard – or even confident of there being space on a concert platform for all the kitchen equipment they needed – so an immediate visible contrast was obvious.

The work is attractively concentrated, with several aspects of its style parallelling that of his two-hand concerto, and Bavouzet was thoroughly equal to its demands – the late-occurring cadenza in particular being both brilliantly and poetically played. Under Collon the orchestra played with sympathy and distinction, too.

There is certain heroic quality apparent whenever anyone attempts this concerto, and Bavouzet attained it, finally earning loud acclaim from the audience in the hall. They were rewarded with a simple and gorgeously fluent rendering of Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1, as an encore.

After the interval, Nicholas Collon directed the Philharmonic in a masterly performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8. Its length is comparable with its predecessor, the ‘Leningrad’, and yet the atmosphere is completely different – which has been a challenge since the day it was first performed (in 1943). It’s also often self-referential, whether by contrast (the first and second movements might have affinities to those of the fifth symphony, but the message is very different) or in its use of that so characteristically clownish style, as an implied self-revelation, in the third.

But the strident and remorseless gloom of much of the symphony was realized with determination and stamina, and when at last the music reached its gradual and hesitant groping towards a hopeful ending, that process was all the more effective. In fact the transition from the Largo to the finale, with horn and clarinet solos delicately played and the music seeming to hover between life and death, was quite magical, and the grim and tenuous optimism of the final pages ended with a dying-away of almost incredible delicacy.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Article published in Manchester Evening News 13th January 2017

CRAIG OGDEN’S guitar weekends at the Bridgewater Hall have become a highlight of the programme there, and this year’s looks like no exception.

The main difference in the programme is that the Saturday night concert (January 21) won’t be at the Bridgewater Hall at all – the BBC Philharmonic have the place for their concert with Sir Andrew Davis and pianist Javier Perianes, so Craig, along with his star guest, jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, will be at the Cosmo Rodewald Hall in the University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Centre, at 8pm.

And, as has been known for some time now, solo guitarist Miloš Karadaglić will not be appearing, for health reasons. Craig has been fulfilling a number of the engagements Miloš had lined up in recent months, ands in the festival here he’s going to play almost exactly what Miloš had planned for his ‘Bach to the Beatles’ programme at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday January 20, with the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

“I took on five of the 15 dates Miloš had planned for his tour, and the first one gave me just five days to learn nine new pieces,” he says, looking back. “I just had to drop everything, and ignore the children and the wife. I hadn’t practised that much since I was at college – though I do enjoy pressure.

“The only replacement items will be that I’ll play an arrangement of Michelle instead of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and there’ll be one different Spanish piece.”

Craig’s a very busy man anyway, these days. Teaching students at the Royal Northern College of Music is one of his big commitments, and he now has more than two dozen of them: he’s also visited China, Australia, Spain and Portugal as a performer and says, “It’s all been good.”

He’s looking forward to the concert with Jacqui Dankworth, too: “We’ve been making a recording together, with songs she’s not recorded before. She’s really amazing – just like her mum, who I’ve also worked with (Jacqui is the daughter of Cleo Laine and John Dankworth).”

As usual, the Manchester guitar festival will finish with Craig’s Big Guitar Jamboree, on Sunday January 22, when a massed guitar orchestra will gather to practise and then perform a piece called An Amazonian Journey together in the afternoon. There are parts for everyone from Grade 1 upwards, and the concert features the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet as guests.

Review of Halle Orchestra concert on 12th January 2017

HALLE ORCHESTRA   Bridgewater Hall

The main attraction of the Hallé’s concert under former chief guest conductor Markus Stenz might have seemed to be the new work for violin and orchestra by Julian Anderson, called In Lieblicher Bläue, with soloist Carolin Widmann (receiving its first Manchester performance).

Ingenious though that was in its construction, theatricality and programmatic content, the abiding thought about the concert was that it provided a masterclass in orchestral style when playing Mozart and Schumann.

In Lieblicher Bläue, inspired by a prose poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, contains some glorious opportunities for traditional lyrical violin playing, and certainly put the soloist at the centre of attention, as she began her role off-stage (with a kind of call-and-response interchange with the orchestra), made her entrance with a cadenza (somewhat drowned by the accompanying textures, in reality), and eventually came to a point of disconnection with her fellow-musicians, first turning her back on the audience and finally playing her plaintive motif in apparent disregard of the rest of the music.

It’s all related to imagery in the Hölderlin text, as are other events in the piece such as the soloist tapping the violin strings with a pencil and rumbling from a thundersheet. It seemed to me that its rhapsodic nature, with little sense of rhythmic propulsion, was curiously similar to the sort of music some composers were writing about 100 years ago, for all its claims to contemporary attention.
The solo itself, almost needless to say, was beautifully played by Carolin Widmann, herself dressed in lieblicher Bläue.

Before that we heard Markus Stenz and the Hallé play Mozart as he should be played – Symphony no. 41, with a small band laid out on classical lines (cellos and basses split and symmetrically either side of the centre), and, more importantly, classical style in its phrasing, vivid contrasts and awareness of rhetoric.

Some of those contrasts went way beyond what’s written in the score, but seemed always to be right, and the violins’ articulation, in particular (with Lyn Fletcher leading) was a joy. I also loved the balance of voices in the slow movement and the low growls from those double basses with a fifth string to create them. There were touches of mystery in the trio section of the Minuet, and the finale surged along, clear and precisely articulated, but with enough flexibility of pulse to mark the pivotal surprises in the harmonic plan – and a tiny, thrilled intake of breath before the amazing multi-contrapuntal coda.

Schumann’s fourth symphony was a different beast, but again given with supreme authority by a conductor who knows that it, also, needs creative steering beyond the text on the page.

Markus Stenz kept the horns on a tight leash in the first movement, until they were needed for climactic emphasis, and brought Romantic warmth to the music’s lovely melodies. Textures were balanced with skill throughout, rhythms were full of vigour, and the finale delivered extraordinary impact, beginning with a majestic sense of drama, then building and relaxing tensions again and again towards a life-affirming climax (and a mad-for-it coda!).

Friday, 6 January 2017

Article published in Manchester Evening News 6th January 2017

THE first outstanding concert of the New Year in Manchester strikes a lively note. Brilliant German violinist Carolin Widmann appears with the Hallé and conductor Markus Stenz, in a piece specially written for her.

It’s good to welcome back the brilliant young German maestro, director of music in the city of Cologne and conductor of its historic Gürzenich Orchestra and until recently the Hallé’s principal guest conductor.

The violin work is called In Liebliche Bläue, and is inspired by a poem of that name by Friedrich Hölderlin. It’s by British composer Julian Anderson, who has written for a range of groups from ballet companies to choral music. But he says this is his first concerto-type piece for soloist and orchestra.

“In a sense, there is a parallel between writing a violin concerto and an aria for solo soprano and orchestra,” he says. “And also I conceived this piece in dramatic terms.

“It’s based on a prose poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, the great German 19th century writer. I first encountered it when I was 13 and was very struck by it, and I immediately began making sketches for a concerto for violin and orchestra, inspired by this poem.

“My idea was always to write what I would call a lyrical poem for violin and orchestra, that would be a match to the lyrical poem in prose that Hölderlin wrote.

“The writing for violin is very varied: it ranges from fleeting high sounds – whispery sounds – to full-blooded melodic, lyrical writing … staccato, pizzicato … and also bowing the wrong way!

“If you bow the violin that way you get a kind of brushing sound that’s very evocative.

“Also at times she puts her bow down and plays her violin with the wood of a pencil, which actually makes a very good, pitched, clear sound.

“The poem is really about beauty, in all its forms, and this piece is, too. It’s meant to be a very definite kind of beauty, not a soft, comfy-chair kind of beauty but something perhaps quite searing at times -  certainly elusive, fleeting, and by necessity something that doesn’t last.”

In Liebliche Bläue had its world premiere in London in March, 2015 – now Manchester gets the chance to hear it.

The concert, on January 12, also contains two masterpieces of the western European classical repertoire: Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ symphony (no. 41, his last in the genre), and Schumann’s fourth.