Showing posts from July, 2018

Elgar's King Olaf: Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral by Christopher Morley

Elgar's Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf were triumphantly premiered in Hanley (the Potteries even producing a special commemorative cup) in 1896. So why has it taken so long to arrive here in Hereford for its Three Choirs premiere on July 30. Surely its pagan elements cannot have disquieted queasy ecclesiasticals (after all, Olaf brings Christianity to "Norroway", as the Longfellow/Acland libretto so quaintly puts it) who had long admitted Mendelssohn's Elijah to the permitted canon. King Olaf's protracted exclusion remains a puzzle, as it's such a tremendous work. It is harmonically far-reaching, it oozes glorious melodies, its choral writing rewards committed efforts (as here, from the remarkable Festival Chorus), and its orchestration is confident and exploratory, with, for example, an eloquently tolling bell punctuating events and organ pedals sumptuously underlining huge climaxes. The Philharmonia were magnificent. Elgar's structure is so wel

L’Incoronazione di Poppea Longborough Festival Opera by Richard Bratby

Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is an opera without a moral. The Emperor Nero – whom no-one with even a smattering of classical history is ever likely to confuse with Alan Titchmarsh – lusts after the beautiful Poppea, and nothing will stop him. Wives, opponents and advisors are simply exiled, vanquished or driven to suicide until the blissful moment when Nero and his squeeze stand unchallenged as rulers of Rome, singing some of the most meltingly sexy music of the entire baroque era. It’s fabulously wicked. Obviously some higher power felt that Longborough Festival Opera’s new production was too convincing for comfort, because half way through Act One a thunderstorm burst over the Cotswold scarp and knocked out the theatre’s electrics. It’s testimony to the skill and professionalism of the Longborough team that after an unscheduled interval and a lot of damp early picnics, it was up and running again only an hour behind schedule. So if there were moments of shaky ensem

Ethel Smyth Mass in D - Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral by Christopher Morley

The Three Choirs Festival, now over 300 years old, is currently in excellent health. Its Chorus, drawn from the three cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, is trained to the level where amateur enthusiasm is matched by professional standards, it boasts one of the country's finest ensembles (the Philharmonia) as orchestra-in-association, its administration is more on the ball than it has ever been, and hospitality is welcoming. And in Saturday's opening concert of this year's meeting at Hereford the Festival Chorus under Geraint Bowen sang with warm firmness of tone, well-cultivated diction in a demanding acoustic, and a huge air of commitment, abetted by an alert Philharmonia (once some of its players had ceased chatting during the opening prayers). All concerned gave willing and lively performances of the two works on offer. John Ireland's These Things Shall Be, a BBC commission for the 1937 Coronation of King George VI, is a splendid piece, unif

Jacqui Dankworth and Craig Ogden: Fishguard International Music Festival by Christopher Morley

It's a tricky drive to Rhosygilwen from Fishguard (as the Irish would say, you'd better start from Cardigan), but it's so welcoming once you're there, and this heartwarming two-hander from Jacqui Dankworth and Craig Ogden was overwhelmingly rewarding. Dankworth arrested us all at the opening with her moving Waly,Waly, her smoky mezzo-soprano delivering this timeless classic with such purity, Ogden's guitar as attentive as a baroque continuo harpsichordist. In fact so many of Ogden's contributions to the duo evoked the textures of baroque or classical figurations, the mere six strings of his instrument coaxed into an almost infinite range of colours. His accompaniments were amplified to match Dankworth's soaring voice, but his guitar was allowed to speak on its own terms in two absorbing solo sets, including a Villa-Lobos Choros I authentic in so many respects, and Gary Ryan's gimmicky and spectacular Rondo Rodeo. Jacqui Dankworth brought a huge

CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy Birmingham Town Hall by David Hart

As the elite corps of the much larger CBSO Youth Orchestra the fifty members who make up the annual Academy are the cream of the crop. Listening to them is not just a question of how well they play – which as seasoned young performers they do with considerable distinction – but their ability to give musically convincing accounts of the works they undertake. This concert of major Beethoven interleaved with minor Bartók and Kodály satisfied on both levels. Bartók’s five Rumanian Folk Dances were unashamedly rustic in tone and attack, clearly intended by conductor Michael Seal to emphasise the music’s earthy grit. Which was fine, considering how pithy the dances are.  Kodály’s Summer Evening, though, is a more rambling expansive affair, and Seal developed it into a full-blooded, lush rhapsody (Lucinda Rimmer’s cor anglais solo a sublimely evocative opening) that ended up sounding as sultry as the evening air outside. However, this generosity of spirit gave the first-movement orchestral ex

Orchestra of St John's, Bromsgrove Parish Church by Christopher Morley

For a small market town in north Worcestershire, Bromsgrove is well blessed in its musical provision: it has an imaginative concert club, it boasts a splendid amateur orchestra in the form of the Orchestra of St John, and it also hosts a lively annual festival. OSJ concluded its busy weekend MusicFest 2018  with a Gala Concert which also marked the finale of this year's Bromsgrove Festival, joyously celebrating all the orchestra's many strengths, and benefiting from the infectious enthusiasm of conductor Richard Jenkinson. A few days previously Jenkinson had delivered a profoundly moving cello recital, and now he brought all his orchestral experience (he was a much-missed principal with the CBSO) to his nurturing of OSJ -- though I wonder if he'd ever had to cope with the scattering on the floor of the front-desk cello parts as the end of Brahms' First Symphony approached (the ladies involved rode the crisis magnificently). This was an account of the Brahms which

Xian Zhang by Christopher Morley

Xian Zhang was relaxing during an early-summer break in the Pennsylvania mountains with her husband, their two young boys and an au pair when I caught up with her; in fact I could hear one of the lads bouncing around as we chatted during our transatlantic conversation. The Chinese conductor comes to Symphony Hall on October 13, when she directs the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening concert of the new season at THSH, with a programme including songs by Richard Strauss (Egyptian soprano Fatma Said the soloist) and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, written at a time when the composer was fighting not only for his artistic life, but also against the risk of "disappearance". I have talked to various conductors based in Communist countries who have been careful to surmise that Shostakovich's works are in fact non-political, but Xian Zhang has no qualms in declaring that  "he had to be political. His true intention was not to be political, as he was retiring

Richard Jenkinson at New Guesten Hall, Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove by Christopher Morley

Richard Jenkinson is a cellist so much at one with his instrument. Like flautists, like guitarists, like tuba-players, cellists begin with the advantage of presenting such a persuasive visual image even before they start playing, but Jenkinson's relationship with his wooden artefact is really something special. A packed Bromsgrove Festival -- and how successfully has this event taken a new turn of direction! -- lunchtime audience relished Jenkinson's presentation of Bach's First Cello Suite and Kodaly's Sonata, both composed for cello alone, and both sharing some amazing similarities across the centuries, not least the rustic qualities which Bach turns into elegance but which Kodaly mines for all their earthy worth. Jenkinson's Bach was fluent and appropriately improvisatory in effect, delivered by a baroque bow, every repeat constantly alive, and with an ebb and flow of dynamics. And his Kodaly was simply miraculous. This is a compendium of every cello techn

Juliana Nova Music Opera, Cheltenham by Christopher Morley

Spoiler alert for future audiences of this opera, one which we at this premiere didn't have, and at whose ending we were left stunned and uneasy. Commissioned by the Nova Music Trust and the Cheltenham and Presteigne Festivals, Joseph Phibbs' Juliana is a modern take on Strindberg's Miss Julie, with a libretto by Laurie Slade, who has a history of dramatic reworkings in his CV. This is a three-hander, with poor little rich girl (as we shockingly discover) Juliana manipulated by Juan, the bitter, self-justifying manservant, while housekeeper Kerstin looks on not altogether helplessly. Cheryl Enever, Samuel Pantcheff and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones perform heroically, and George Vass conducts a wonderfully agile and eloquent New Music Opera Ensemble. The action takes place on Midsummer Night, but its results are so far away from the sunny optimism of Midsummer operas by Wagner, Tippett and Britten. Instead we have the grime of drug-taking and incest, recalling masterpieces by

Ariadne auf Naxos - Longborough Festival Opera by Christopher Morley

In what is proving yet another bumper season for LFO deep in the lovely Cotswolds, their new production of Ariadne auf Naxos is a knockout. Richard Strauss' opera which manages to combine backstage tensions, lowlife comedy and high tragic drama is complex in its textures and structures, but in a presentation such as this it emerges as a convincing, life-enhancing jewel. Alan Privett's direction brings both wit and grandeur, plus an understandable acknowledgement of the score's Wagnerian elements (the three ethereal nymphs, for example, looking over the abandoned Ariadne, cast cat's-cradles of ropes like the three Norns which launch Gotterdammerung). He sets his action on Faye Bradley's simple, elegant two-levelled set, so stylishly lit by Ben Ormerod. Yet all of this would be nothing without Anthony Negus's supercharged riding of Strauss' miraculous score. This is in fact a small-scale orchestra with fillers (Kelvin Lim outstanding in what is actually

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra - Elgar Hall, Birmingham University by Christopher Morley

For a programme originally abandoned because of arctic conditions last December to be rescheduled for an afternoon at the height of a July heatwave was ironic indeed, and may have led to an undeservedly small audience. And for the programme to have a Russian thread at a time when the eyes of the world are focussed upon a footballing event going on in that country was a bit of serendipitous topicality. Michael Lloyd took the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra podium in full fig: tails, white tie, cummerbund and waistcoat (he got there before Gareth Southgate), yet he drew from his more relaxedly-garbed forces performances of energy and delicacy. Stravinsky's Petrushka opened proceedings, well-detailed right from its throbbing, pulsating beginning, immediately vivid in its characterisation. BPO has just bidden a fond farewell to John Franklin, principal flute for many decades, but Helen Foster, his replacement, was magnificent in the beady-eyed exposure Stravinsky puts on the ins

Chetham's School of Music at Lichfield Cathedral by Richard Bratby

The Lichfield Festival’s Saturday night spectacular had an air of déja-vu. A few years ago, when the Festival was in a near-terminal artistic slump, the combined music staff of Lichfield Cathedral and its School stepped in to show how the job should be done with a superb weekend-long celebration of Benjamin Britten using only local artists, including a triumphant staging of Noyes Fludde. This was a sort of re-creation: with (as far as I could work out) Chetham’s School of Music providing the core of the orchestra, and schools and amateur musicians from all over the Staffordshire providing the “animals”, the pealing handbells and the general atmosphere of celebration. Under Freya Wynn-Jones’s direction, it all coalesced around big-hearted central performances from Jonathan Gunthorpe (Mr Noye) and Polly Leech (a feisty Mrs Noye), and while electronic amplification created more audibility problems than it solved, the brilliance of Britten’s sonic imagination – from clattering raindro

Carducci Quartet and Danny Driver by Richard Bratby

On a scorching summer afternoon, it was hard to imagine a more wintry programme than that given by the Carducci Quartet and pianist Danny Driver. It wasn’t their fault, of course: the choice of Shostakovich’s Quartet No.8 and Elgar’s Piano Quintet was part of a theme of war and conflict that runs throughout the 2018 Lichfield Festival. No-one could fairly have anticipated that it would coincide with the sort of weather that would have had Elgar out and cycling about the Malverns – while it’s hard to imagine the football-crazy Shostakovich sitting down for a recital during a major World Cup fixture. In any case, it was packed: a vindication for serious, high-quality chamber music programming in a Festival which has occasionally seemed slightly embarrassed about its classical offering. The Carduccis opened with the Shostakovich: a lyrical, subtly-layered interpretation that resisted the temptation to thrash the life out of the ferocious central movements. The back-story of this piec

CBSO at the Lichfield Festival by Richard Bratby

When orchestral musicians talk about a “cathedral acoustic”, it’s not generally a compliment. But if an orchestra really has to play in a cathedral, you’d be hard pressed to find one that sounded better than Lichfield. And truth be told, it sounded as if the CBSO and conductor Edward Gardner were actually enjoying the change of scene. At least, I don’t think I imagined it. Although the orchestra was playing with a severely-reduced string section, the dense, drowsy chords near the beginning of Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration felt firm enough to reach out and squeeze. And the players seemed to relish the bit of extra freedom – the echoes and blurred edges – in that resonant space, so different from the forensic clarity of Symphony Hall. Rainer Gibbons’s big oboe solo near the start of the Strauss soared rapturously across the strings: leader Zoë Beyers replied with a violin solo of melting sweetness. Which is not to say that these performances lacked anything in driv