PIERRE-LAURENT AIMARD                                            St James’ Church, Chipping Campden *****   Charlie Bennett’s legacy lives on! During his long tenure as Artistic Director of the Chipping Campden Music Festival he developed an impressive roster of visiting international artists, not least those renowned as exponents of his own beloved instrument, the piano. If you can attract the likes of Alfred Brendel and Elisabeth Leonskaja to this off-the-beaten-track Cotswolds village, then you ain’t doing too badly. Now Charlie has retired, but the future is safe in the hands of Thomas Hull and Jessica May, and the visits of the world’s greatest pianists continue. It was my privilege to be present at the absorbing, life-enhancing recital given by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. His was a programme stimulating both intellectually and emotionally, beginning with Bach’s B-flat Partita, maintaining a forward rhythmic flow whilst allowing all the neatly
  Best of Both Worlds – Old meets New CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ The Victorians’ judgement on children – that they should be seen but not heard – ought usually apply to conductors. Joshua Weilerstein was an exception, with a short, pithy platform address and outlined the theme of this cogently constructed concert. Contradiction was the keyword: four works whose nature or circumstances of composition were in tension but harmoniously reconciled. Then he launched the CBSO into the Czech composer Pavel Haas’s ‘Study for Strings’ which, like a white dwarf star, packs enormous energy into a tiny space – just seven minutes. The exhilarating opening shouts life-affirmation, while Haas’s use of canonic imitation was thrilling, starting with second fiddles against violas, then cellos, first and finally basses entering the fray. He slips in a brief elegiac slow movement before a final arms-raised dash to the finishing line, winningly played by the CBSO strings. Yet Haas wrote this joyous miniatur
                                             THE DRAGON OF WANTLEY                                            New Sussex Opera at Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne   I have seen two previous presentations of John Frederick Lampe’s burlesque opera, and enjoyed them both greatly, but this new production by New Sussex Opera is the most inventive and exhilarating by far. Lampe’s spoof on Handelian grand opera is brilliantly constructed, built upon Henry Carey’s absolutely scintillating libretto. It leaves no stone of the genre unturned, and Handel himself loved it greatly. Whereas Handel’s operas take place in classical times, set in exotic locations, Lampe’s opera takes us to a village in South Yorkshire, peopled by common folk instead of great luminaries, and its three acts take half the time of one of Handel’s offerings. The chorus in Handelian opera is generally a minor consideration, a mere assemblage of all the principals creating an ensemble to round off proceedings in t
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Britten: Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus / Rattle (LSO Live SACD / CD) ★★★★★ Simon Rattle has always been an enthusiastic advocate of Benjamin Britten’s music, performing and recording most of the composer’s major concert works with the CBSO – with one important omission. That’s put right on this disc with a sparkling live recording of Britten’s ‘Spring Symphony’, a joyous work celebrating the emergence from winter into a rejuvenated world – very apt for 1949 with Europe recovering after a world war. Britten always showed an acute taste in selecting texts and sets English poets from Spenser and Milton to Auden, finishing off with the medieval round ‘Sumer is icumen in’. The LSO Chorus are joined by the eager young voices of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Tiffin Children’s Chorus and The Tiffin Girls’ School Choir for a hugely enjoyable energized performance with a trio of outstanding soloists, Elizabeth Watts (sopr
  Sun, Sea and Sirens from Debussy and Ravel CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ To contemporary eyes and ears the poems Ravel set for his song cycle ‘Shéhérazade’ are the epitome of what the cultural critic Edward Said labelled “Orientalism”. This is where non-Westerners are reduced to crudely demeaning stereotypes, usually colourful, violent passionate primitives. In the first song ‘Asie’ (Asia) we have: “dark faces with gleaming teeth”; “dark amorous eyes”; “skins as yellow as oranges”; “smiling murderers”; “roses and blood”. A century ago, however, this homage to the fantastic tales of the Arabian Nights was taken as intended – a kaleidoscope of colourful images from never-never land. Ravel clothes it in suitably light and luminous musical costumes and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn lovingly caressed poet Tristan Klingsor’s images from the “wonderful land of nursery stories” derived from a delirious, perhaps narcotically enhanced, vision. In ‘L'indifférent’ Llewellyn conveyed the narrator’
                               A BUSY ELGAR FESTIVAL 2024   The kaleidoscope of offerings making up Elgar Festival 2024 is too generous to take in at one sitting, the near week-long event bringing celebration, education, encouragement, surprise elements and even a car rally. There is a strong local feel to the whole affair, reflecting Elgar’s love of the Worcestershire countryside and in particular his affinity with the Malvern Hills. And it is Malvern which brings us the car rally,   the 2024 Morgan Sports Car Club rally, heading off from the Morgan Motor Factory at 10.30am on May 28 and finishing at The Firs (Elgar’s Birthplace), Lower Broadheath, from 3.30pm The drivers can catch up there with the conclusion of a two-day Conducting Masterclass (beginning on May 27, first day of the Festival). Eight emerging conductors from all over the world will make a study of Elgar’s music with the help of musicians of the English String Orchestra under the guidance of Kenneth Woods and J
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Kazuki Yamada’s first concert as the CBSO’s Music Director began with a bang and ended with an even bigger one. George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ could have been bespoke for Yamada’s strengths – crackling with rhythmic extrovert energy, every nuance of tonal colour lovingly revealed, the orchestra given freedom to relish the work’s profusion of great tunes. The native New Yorker’s starry-eyed view of Paris fizzed with energy, its honking taxi horns and bustling boulevards sharply captured. Then, in the musical equivalent of a movie-screen dissolve, the mood changed as Eugene Tzikindelean's violin ushered in the romantic switch, enter Jason Lewis’s trumpet to herald the melody that will blossom as the work progresses to its surging affirmative climax – superbly played by the CBSO. Difficult to top one might think until we heard Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Not the obligatory Ravel orchestration, although he got a compensatory nod wit
                                             DREAM OF GERONTIUS 1900 (Winged Lion Signum) The sheer importance of this new release of Elgar’s choral masterpiece has perhaps led its producers to go over the top in terms of presentation. This is a surpassingly wonderful account, but it is packaged in a way which some might describe as pretentious. Okay, this is a period-instrument performance (about which more later) but does that really justify the title “Elgar The Dream of Gerontius 1900”. What next: “Haydn The Creation 1798”; Britten “ War Requiem 1962”? The two CDs are slipped into a handsome hardback booklet, illustrated with sylvan scenes which don’t really add any significance (though there is one fascinating shot of the recording in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls), John Henry Newman’s text, full lists of   the choristers and orchestral players, biographies of the soloists, acknowledgements to sponsors and donors, a sermonising preface from Stephen Hough and a stimulating introd
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ It reads like a story from that master of the gothic and macabre E.T.A. Hoffmann. An unstable composer of genius writes a concerto for his friend, a renowned violin virtuoso. The composer claims that the slow movement’s melody was dictated to him by angels but the virtuoso is unimpressed and never plays the work in public. The composer dies two years later in a lunatic asylum and the virtuoso deposits the score in a library where it lies for eighty years. But the virtuoso’s troubled spirit cannot rest and he contacts his great-niece – herself a renowned violinist – and urges her to get the work performed. Stripped of the supernatural element that’s the story of Schumann’s Violin Concerto of 1853, its rejection by Joseph Joachim and its first performance in 1937. Joachim derided it as morbid, drab, repetitive and ineffective, so is it worth reviving? James Ehnes' performance deserves an emphatic “Yes”. It opens like a symphony with the CBSO under Markus
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ Did the CBSO’s chief executive Emma Stenning attend this concert? One hopes so because she would have been able to see the early fruits of the silliest of her new innovations. The orchestra and soloist Ian Bostridge were about a quarter of the way through Britten’s ‘Les Illuminations’ when the tenor motioned to conductor Gergely Madaras, raised his hand and halted the performance. He addressed a small group in the audience who had been filming him on their mobile phones. “Their lights are shining directly in my eyes – it’s very distracting," he said. "Would you please put your phones down.” A performance by one of the finest British singers of the last fifty years, and a world-renowned interpreter of Britten, was interrupted by a handful of intellectually challenged mobile-obsessed dimwits. Their antics are positively encouraged by the orchestra’s administrators who print this in the concert programme: “We are very happy for you to take photograph
  Dresden Philharmonic at Symphony Hall ★★★★ Dresden is the perfect example of the esteem with which classical music is held in Germany. A city with half the population of Birmingham has a resident opera company and not one but two symphony orchestras. There is the Staatskapelle Dresden founded in 1548 – sixteen years before Shakespeare was born – and the Dresden Philharmonic which, in comparison, is a mere stripling founded in 1870, which still makes its considerably older than the CBSO. Many touring orchestras are obviously in awe of Symphony Hall but the Philharmonic has a chic acoustically engineered 1,800 seater auditorium, opened in 2017, and probably felt it to be home-from-home. The Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky was in charge for this six-concert British tour which featured three works from his homeland. He opened with the Prelude from Mussorgsky’s opera ‘Khovanshchina’ not a work well known in Britain but if it sounded familiar then perhaps it's because of its si
  A Damned Fine ‘Damnation of Faust’! CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ In 1974 the  CBSO Chorus,  formed just four months earlier, performed their first concert. It was a testing one too, Berlioz’s ‘Damnation of Faust’ under the orchestra’s French conductor Louis Fremaux. Berlioz makes huge demands on his choral forces requiring them not just to sing but also to act in character. In the work’s two hour span their roles include  peasants lustily enjoying the advent of Spring, solemn Easter celebrants, roistering drunks, students and soldiers, gnomes, sylphs and will o’ the wisps. At the work’s climax they take both sides of the theological divide: the chorus of demons in Pandemonium, in Berlioz’s invented infernal language, and a heavenly host wafting the soul of Marguerite to heaven. Their debut performance was a triumph and, no surprises here, so was this one under Kazuki Yamada. Symphony Hall looks especially resplendent when the Chorus is on duty and here they were joined by the Tenors a
                                                            ABC OF OPERA                                                           Grand Theatre, Swansea (10.3.24)            What Mark Llewelyn Evans is achieving with his Academy of Barmy Composers is nothing short of amazing, and valuable beyond riches in these philistine times when Gradgrindish governments are cutting funding to arts education. When two lots of 900 primary schoolchildren each time (from 23 Swansea schools) gasp at what they are witnessing in a beautiful theatre the likes of which they have probably only ever dreamed of, that is quite a start for an hour of enthralling interaction with ABC’s PantOpera drama of good vanquishing evil. We had all the elements of panto (“Oh no. he’s not!” and “She’s behind you!”), but this time with all the cardboard characters as composers of the classical period: Windy Wolfie, Hectic Haydn, Charismatic Chevalier (St-Georges de Boulogne) and Tortellini Rossini, who can “compose-a
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases ‘ John Boyden – A Celebration’: Various artistes (Divine Art 2 CDs) ★★★ John Boyden was one of the most colourful characters in British classical music. He was the first managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra but was sacked after six months over his unsuccessful coup against conductor Andre Previn. In 1992 he relaunched the New Queen's Hall Orchestra; only a lunatic would launch another orchestra Boyden said, adding “I was that lunatic.” His greatest achievement was his alliance with entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Hamlyn with whom he founded the Classics for Pleasure record label in 1970, selecting the repertoire, artists and producing the recording sessions. At the bargain price of 89p they sold 4 million copies in four years, introducing a new audience to the joys of classical music. One of the label’s most revered recordings appears on this retrospective set, Schubert’s song cycle ‘Die Sch ö ne M üll
                                                            BEN AND IMO                                                           Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon **** Mark Ravenhill’s tight two-hander tells of the tempestuous relationship between Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, daughter of the late Gustav, who has arrived in Aldeburgh to assist Britten in the composition of his commissioned ceremonial opera “Gloriana”, based on the glorious reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The composer has only nine months before it is to be premiered at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The atmosphere is fraught and pressurised. Originating as a radio-play broadcast in 2013 as part of the Britten centenary celebrations, the play is certainly wordy, and certainly every word is not intelligible, however brilliant the delivery of the actors Samuel Barnett as Britten and Victoria Yeates as Imogen. But their body-language and intensity of their engagement com
  NORMAN STINCHCOMBE INTERVIEWS CHRISTOPHER MORLEY, WHO HAS RESIGNED AFTER 36 YEARS AS CHIEF MUSIC CRITIC OF THE BIRMINGHAM POST At the end of this month Christopher Morley will resign as Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post after 36 years during which time he has covered hundreds of classical music performances at home and abroad. He shadowed the CBSO’s concert tours around the world – filing copy by telephone – and accompanied the Birmingham Bach Choir to Leipzig when it was part of Communist-controlled East Germany. His exploits fill his 2021 autobiography ‘Confessions of a Music Critic’, which is lively, upbeat and often scurrilously funny. His resignation letter is very different. It acknowledges the “huge honour” of working for the newspaper but fears that, “no-one in today’s newsroom will remember” him. Maudlin old age (Morley is 76) or regret for the past, that other country where everything was always better? Neither – nor is it sepia tinted nostalgia. Those really were t