Saturday, 29 June 2019

Review of Luke Jones, RNCM Symphony Orchestra, Elim Chan and Jack Sheen, Bridgewater Hall

The Royal Northern College of Music’s end-of-year symphony concert is a special occasion. This year we heard a solo pianist surely destined for great things, and some exceptionally good orchestral playing under a remarkable young guest conductor. And there was a world premiere to begin with.

Swell, by Fenton Hutson, does what it says on the tin. In under 10 minutes he offers us a whole variety of orchestral crescendos, most of them quite short, many overlapping and piggy-backing in effect, with a few clear motifs and themes to emerge, be heard again and provide shape.

His crescendos are made by increases of volume, intensity, complexity, and even (putting just a toe into the sea of mainstream classical expression) through polyphony, almost as if forever working towards a great climax that never quite comes. It’s tantalizing, rather than satisfying.

It was conducted by the very impressive Elim Chan, who was to appear again for Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

But first came Luke Jones, an RNCM Gold Medal winner this summer and clearly a pianist to watch. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand requires a formidable technique, and he was up for that, but even more appealing was the gentle and poetic quality he brought to its later solo sections. Jack Sheen conducted, and, in addition to a big, space-filling sound from the orchestra of just over 40 strings, brought things alive in the march episode (a crescendo of Bolero-like qualities figuring in it).

Luke Jones followed his concerto with another piece for left hand – Scriabin’s Prelude – and also (to prove his right hand can do the business, too), Chopin’s demanding √Čtude in C op.10, no.1.

The RNCM Symphony Orchestra has given some great performances over the years, and it’s often seemed to me that conducting it requires a special quality that could be summed up as ‘cool head, warm heart’. There’s no lack of energy or willingness to commit in these players – like young racehorses, they want to give everything, and harnessing them to a collective task needs rare skills.

But conductor Elim Chan has those skills. I’ve not seen her in action before, but would very much hope to again. The performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 was full of passion and intensity – it also kept bringing happy surprises as she exposed elements of melody and texture not always heard, such as the little viola figure that opens the Adagio and was articulated alongside the violins’ big tune in a movement that was gloriously poised throughout.

She has an instinct for those long, unfolding melodies that makes them breathe and sing, and sometimes they stole into the texture almost unnoticeably before blossoming into full flower. There was wonderful solo playing from the wind principals, and precision in abundance from the full body of strings, the 11 celli making for a lovely, dark Russian sound.

Elim Chan (c Willeke Machiels)

Monday, 17 June 2019

Review of BBC Philharmonic, Elizabeth Watts, Mark Simpson, Ben Gernon at Bridgewater Hall

Mark Simpson, BBC Philharmonic composer in association, wrote his clarinet concerto for himself to play, and was soloist in its world premiere at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday.

It’s only just over a year since we heard the premiere of his cello concerto, a piece that has all his brilliance of orchestral writing and sense of atmosphere, coupled with a clear and satisfying map, in it. This has those qualities, too, and the same extraordinary inventiveness.

There’s again a large orchestra, with comprehensive percussion and piano, and there are four movements – Vigoroso, Slow and Expressive, Lively and Gentle – each of the first three quite brief, so the piece as a whole is more like a three-section first unit balanced by an episodic second one.

The cello concerto ended with a kind of orchestral firework: this begins with one (and its ending is, despite his own programme note’s reference to ‘a final crescendo’, a few bars of slow, soft aural evaporation for soloist and then orchestra, following the said crescendo). But from the start it’s clear there’s a lot going on, particularly in the hands of the soloist. Simpson is a virtuoso and intends to remind us of it, and he gives himself plenty to play that’s alternately rapid and lyrical, completing this movement exposed in the high altitude zone.

The second, too, is expressive in the upper register – he calls it ‘quasi-improvisatory’ – and distinctive because of the orchestral chorale that forms its close: slow and relatively simple, harmonically warm and static in short, measured phrases, it makes an oasis in the welter of virtuosity.

The third movement soon makes up for that, with some wry duetting of the soloist with his orchestral counterparts, and a slow-down at the end bringing mystery-laden chords – a soundworld that’s continued as the finale begins, the piano tinkling in a fairyland of string harmonics. But conflict is to come, with dark harmonic clashes, busy percussion and a big point of climax. As it peters out, the solo relaxes in a lush accompaniment, and the chorale idea reappears in more positive, fanfare-like guise (before that brief evaporative epilogue).

As with the cello concerto, there’s satisfaction for the listener in the structural landmark of a memorable and recalled passage, and there’s much to be impressed by in the solo. I found I was wishing for more exploration of the deeper side of the clarinet’s character, in both senses of the word, but as a piece of showmanship for the composer-performer this has clearly done its job.

The concert began with the beguiling singing of Elizabeth Watts in three excerpts from Mozart’s opera, Idomeneo – from the emotionally-torn role of Idamante, including Se il padre perdei, where oboe, flute, horn and bassoon form a little Harmonie of their own to lovely effect, and ending with the wonderful Zeffirettio lusinghieri, where she began the reprise so softly as to be barely audible but with no less of her golden tone, and finished it in glorious voice. The orchestra, in addition to that wind serenade, played the Overture and the March entr’acte before the second act, and under Ben Gernon’s baton, sounded rich and rounded, even in reduced-strings format.

Gernon’s major task was Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 (with Elizabeth Watts present to sing in the fourth movement). The horn playing of guest principal Eirik Haaland was again a notable feature – indefatigable, he left his fifth horn assistant with hardly anything to play all evening, and sounded uniformly wonderful.

Ben Gernon called forth great surges of tone from the outset, even in Mahler’s more innocent-seeming melodies, and brought clear characterization to each of the opening movement’s many themes. That’s important, because the subtlety of the finale lies in its recalling of echoes from beforehand in new contexts and with new implications. The second movement was near-unctuous in its enforced innocence, and the third was in many ways the most impressive, as its peaceful tread remained slow and measured, and its last bars far more of a hymn than the shriek that’s sometimes made of it.

Elizabeth Watts

Mark Simpson

Ben Gernon