Showing posts from October, 2018


STEVEN OSBORNE BARBER INSTITUTE, BIRMINGHAM UNIVERSITY ***** CHRISTOPHER MORLEY HEARS STEVEN OSBORNE DELIVER TWO VERY DIFFERENT PIANO SONATAS SHARING THE SAME KEY One of the many highlights of Steven Osborne's enthralling recital was his cunning juxtaposition of two major piano sonatas both in the same key, and revealing how two totally different soundworlds can emanate from the same tonality, B-flat major. Prokofiev's wartime Seventh Sonata has the key as a vehicle for crisp, sardonic clamour, with a tortured heart at its core. An uneasy peace descends in the central movement before a finale of jagged impetus, B-flat swirling around in an increasingly frenetic sacrificial dance (what imagination was tumbling out of the composer here!) towards a terrifying conclusion which Osborne's shoulder-power encompassed heroically. There was no distracting acknowledgement of the pianist's technical virtuosity in this performance, just sheer immersion in his musicianly res


                                         CHRISTOPHER MORLEY TALKS TO DAVID STOUT, STARRING AS NAPOLEON IN PROKOFIEV'S WAR AND PEACE                                                                           Welsh National Opera's current production of Prokofiev's War and Peace is a huge testimony to the strength of WNO as a company theatre of the highest order (I saw it in Cardiff at the end of September). Its squad of principals multi-casts dazzlingly, its production team achieves wonders of stage-craft, its orchestra delivers this wonderful, multi-coloured score with a total sense of unanimous commitment, and the chorus is, as ever, magnificent. And what choruses these are, surging with a patriotic devotion to Mother Russia that could easily be equated with Welshness here in the Principality. At times we are reminded of the protectionist fervour of Wagner's Mastersingers, and indeed, the saviour, Field-

Exploring Shostakovich

EXPLORING SHOSTAKOVICH DANTE QUARTET ARTRIX, BROSMGROVE **** CHRISTOPHER MORLEY SHARES IN SHOSTAKOVICH SOLIDARITY Over more than a quarter-of-a-century, the weekends devoted to the complete string quartets of various composers have become legendary, Jennie McGregor-Smith and Jim Page attracting to Bromsgrove music-lovers from all over the country keen to hear both the music and to benefit from the knowledge of a range of expert speakers. This year's focus was on the 15 quartets of Shostakovich, a genre to which the troubled Soviet composer came long after he was well embarked on his series of 15 symphonies, after which the two catalogues ran parallel for the rest of his life. The performers were the popular and engaging Dante Quartet (this their debut in the cycle), tight in ensemble, beautifully-balanced and clearly-textured, always empathetic in their capturing of the music's many moods, some of them seeming to emerge from the subconscious. And it was a nice touch


CHRISTOPHER MORLEY SHARES AN UNFORGETTABLE AFTERNOON WITH THE CBSO AT SYMPHONY HALL ***** Anyone who questions the value of the arts is obviously emotionally brain-dead, but even those who nevertheless know only the price of everything would have acknowledged the drawing-power of the CBSO for this packed-out matinee. All the restaurants in Brindleyplace were heaving, and I'd shared a number 9 bus with a whole welter of people of a certain age coming into the city centre to eat, pre-event. Strangely, the Symphony Hall auditorium was unwelcomingly gloomy, but the warmth emanating from everyone involved in what was really a wonderful concert heartened us all, the CBSO on fire under the smilingly genial direction of Vassily Sinaisky. Wagner's Flying Dutchman overture, fizzing, rhythmically tight, brought both horror and uneasy jollity in this electrifying reading, and, just across the Baltic from the Latvia where Wagner conceived his opera (beautiful map in the programme


BERNSTEIN  WONDERFUL TOWN : de Niese. Umphress, Gunn LSO & Chorus, Rattle (LSO0813) **** Leonard Bernstein's 1953 musical follows aspiring writer Ruth (Alysha Umphress) and her younger sister would-be actress Eileen (Danielle de Niese) who arrive in New York's bohemian Greenwich Village from Ohio looking for fame, fortune and love. Bernstein's score is a musical melting pot, swing and jazz elements wittily used in  Wrong Note Rag  and  Ballet at the Village Vortex.  The London Symphony Orchestra are razor-sharp and in the groove under Sir Simon Rattle in his third recording of the work. The soloists are uniformly good with de Niese' delivering a sweet but not too winsome  A Little Bit in Love  and Nathan Gunn is a convincingly tough but really nice-guy Bob Baker. I still prefer Rattle's 1998 recording with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Warner Classics) with better balanced studio sound and where Broadway stars Kim Criswell (Ruth) and Audra


CHRISTOPHER MORLEY HEARS A REMARKABLE SEQUENCE COMMEMORATING THE END OF THE GREAT WAR ALDWYN VOICES Malvern College **** There are so many joys attached to the Autumn in Malvern Festival, and that's not including the glories of the season: the sheer enthusiasm with which Peter Smith assembles a month-long cornucopia of concerts, exhibitions, talks and other activities; the beautifully-produced, generously-illustrated programme-book; and not least, the Sunday afternoon sequence of choral offerings from Aldwyn Voices interspersed with well-chosen readings. The theme for this year's Festival (the 29th) was "The Silence in our Hearts", music , poetry and prose to mark the centenary of the ending of the Great War. At its centre we heard the Elgar Violin Sonata, written in 1918 when the composer was hiding himself away from all the metropolitan jingoism rife in London, a work largely introspective, and with a whimsical, brooding Romance as its second movemen

Nigel Kennedy

RICHARD BRATBY AND ASTON VILLA HEAR NIGEL KENNEDY IN RECITAL Symphony Hall *** Symphony Hall is lit in claret and blue, the backing band wear Villa shirts: yes, Nigel Kennedy's back in town. I've never seen him play outside of Birmingham so I've no idea how his Villa Park bantz go down with a crowd in, say, Manchester. But there's no doubt that he still has a warm following in Birmingham, if no longer enough quite to fill Symphony Hall, and his announcement that he was dedicating the concert to the memory of the late Sir Doug Ellis drew an appreciative response. He's gone this time for a sort of Stephane Grappelli / Django Reinhardt set up, with two excellent jazz guitarists and a bass, plus a cellist, Peter Adams, who sounded distinctly uncomfortable with any attempt to swing but made a gorgeous sound nonetheless. The music – in as far as it mattered – mainly comprised a sort of semi-improvised klezmer suite of Kennedy's own composition, which in its wild

Exploring Shostakovich

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY LOOKS FORWARD TO THE DANTE QUARTET EXPLORING SHOSTAKOVICH IN BROMSGROVE This weekend sees Bromsgrove as the focal destination for visitors flocking from points as far afield as Cornwall and Scotland, the attraction being a performance at the Artrix Arts Centre of the complete cycle of all 15 Shostakovich string quartets by the Dante Quartet. "Exploring Shostakovich" also offers talks by speakers with an expert knowledge of the composer, many of them as a result of personal acquaintance with him (the closest I ever got was in a conversation with the Russian conductor Alexander Anissimov, who said of Shostakovich "he smoked, he liked football, he liked women..." Another one of the lads, then). Broadcaster and writer Stephen Johnson is host for the event, giving a general introduction to Shostakovich's heroic efforts to express himself during t

CBSO review 18.10.18

Brahms and Haydn CBSO at Birmingham Town Hall ***** François Leleux is that rare commodity in classical music – a character. He wore tails but no tie, collar raffishly unbuttoned with, at one point, his oboe hanging from a loop at his left side, gun-slinger style. With a cheeky grin often creasing his Mr Punch features Leleux oozed amiability: he was clearly intent on having a good time and wanted the players and the audience to join him. We did, and the concert ended as a three-way love-in, happily humming the encore as we departed – a snippet from the Largo of Dvorak's ninth symphony with Leleux on cor anglais – or "Going 'ome" as he succinctly put it. He began by conducting a pleasant, if slightly under-characterized, set of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn but then delighted us with a dazzling performance of Haydn's Oboe Concerto in C major. Haydn's original soloist, white-wigged and in servant's livery, couldn't have careened and c

Elgar CD review

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS A RARE ELGAR COLLECTION ELGAR THE HILLS OF DREAMLAND: Rudge / Neven / BBC Concert Orchestra / Wordsworth (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 271-2) *** This collection of orchestral songs is a mixed bag but one whose items are consistently well performed by soloists and orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. The Song Cycle Op.59 (1909) was written for a memorial concert to Elgar's friend A.E.Jaeger – the man commemorated as Nimrod in the Enigma Variations – and are obviously deeply felt and in the composer's most eloquent melancholy mode, affectingly sung by the baritone Henk Neven. The romantic song Wind at Dawn – the original 1888 piano version of which won Elgar a fiver in a competition – is a mystical romantic piece passionately delivered by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge. The tub-thumping jingoism of Follow the Colours (1914) is of historical interest only but the complete incidental music to Grania and Diarmid finds Elgar on top form. There's a bonus di


BERLIOZ GRANDE MESSE DES MORTES: Tødenes / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra & Choirs / Gardner (Chandos CHSA 5219) *** A successful performance of Berlioz' Requiem Mass depends on getting the huge forces properly positioned in the right acoustic. In this live performance, recorded at the orchestra's Grieghallen home, they were – but as a recording for listening in hi-fi at home it doesn't work. The efforts of the splendid orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner, an adept at choral works, is vitiated by the production team who captured the acoustic space but not the work's in-your-face impact. The rocketing strings and thunderous timpani in the Dies irae, spine-tingling moments in Levine (DG) and Previn's (EMI) recordings, are muted here, even when the disc is played at very high volume. In the Sanctustenor Bror Magnus Tødenes sounds about a mile away. The recording works best in the gentle and tender choral passages, the four choirs are excellent, but a Requiem wi


NORMAN STINCHCOMBE SHARES THE PAIN OF PIANIST YEVGENY SUDBIN AT THE LOW TURNOUT FOR HIS BIRMINGHAM TOWN HALL RECITAL Yevgeny Sudbin at the Birmingham Town Hall *** Perhaps it was the embarrassingly small audience which made this recital a rather muted affair. Sudbin tried hard to hide his disappointment at the empty rows but, the final item completed, made a swift exit without offering an encore. He began with two quirky Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. In Sudbin's hands the pensive Sonata in F minor peered forward into the era of romanticism – without any hint of being manipulated – while the Sonata in G Major's perpetual energy and humorous scampering was clearly conveyed. In Scriabin's Sonata No 5 Sudbin captured the composer's potent mixture of eroticism and mysticism; the music emerging from a mysterious bass rumble, the incense-swathed chords and explosive triple forte finish all in place. His own arrangement of Saint-Saens Danse Macabre was impressive with its sin


With Ex Cathedra's 50th anniversary approaching, the chamber choir's founder and director Jeffrey Skidmore is looking a long way forward as well as back, and is contemplating the arrival of a successor when he eventually retires. "I don't want Ex Cathedra to stop just because I go," he declares, escaping from seven months of building work at his house near Lichfield Cathedral in order to meet me over what has become a traditional annual pre-season Italian lunch in Brindley Place. "Lots of singers have come through Ex Cathedra and become conductors themselves, and we've come up with a great scheme, engaging associate conductors, each one to have a five-month period with the choir over the next two-and-a-half years. "We'll appoint an assistant conductor in 2021, which will be my 70th birthday, with a view to their becoming my successor. We want them to experience the total range of what Ex Cathedra do. It's on social media, it's every


Symphony Hall, Birmingham *** This opening concert of THSH's new International Concert Season brought us the huge pleasure of hearing Egyptian soprano Fatma Said in a self-chosen sequence of Richard Strauss songs, beginning with the intimacy of Freundliche Vision and ending with the ardour of Cacilie. Said is both singer and actress, and her delivery of these offerings, each one a gem in its own right, revealed her gift for communication. Here there was delicacy, expressiveness, inwardness flowering into expansiveness at the top of phrases, and a subtle sense of nuance; and her duetting with concertmaster Duncan Riddell in Meinem Kinde was a joy. She deserved a less heavy accompaniment from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under (for once an appropriate term) the bandmasterish baton of Xian Zhang, a conductor who certainly knows her scores but shouldn't feel the need to underline everything with such emphasis. I wish Said hadn't given us the encore she did, apparent

Christopher Morley shakes his head in sadness

We are no longer in the Golden Age, when a name or venue would be attraction enough for people to be queuing out the door for admission to events. During my half-century of reviewing I've witnessed people docilely standing in line on the steps of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery hoping for a ticket-return for the latest Birmingham Chamber Music Society concert. Similarly for Birmingham Festival Choral Society under the direction of the much-loved and much-admired Jeremy Patterson. Admittance to one of the series of Evening Concerts at the glorious art deco Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham was like receiving a red carpet pass to the Hollywood Oscars. Not any more. Birmingham Chamber Music Society has folded, after so many decades of bringing illustrious performers to the city. Birmingham Festival Choral Society valiantly pursues a roaming existence, more often than not with keyboard accompaniment, rather than that of a full orchestra, and the Ba

Miah Persson at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham

When I was a Birmingham undergraduate over 50 years ago we music students were all on a three-line whip to attend Barber Evening Concerts -- not that we needed any coercion, with stars such as Janet Baker, Gyorgy Pauk, Denis Matthews and the Borodin String Quartet gracing its intimate stage. The attendance at the latest offering was shamefully embarrassing, though Miah Persson, one of the world's most sought-after sopranos and her accompanist Joseph Middleton did a wonderful job in creating an atmosphere of almost palpable communication. Persson effortlessly filled every nook of this gorgeous auditorium with glorious tone, sometimes radiant, sometimes bleak. An occasional hardening of vowel-sounds low in the register may have been a side-effect of the unaffected way she actually acted each performance, with Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben particularly outstanding as Persson took us through this gripping emotional journey from burgeoning love, through marriage, childbirth a

Yamada conducts Bernstein - CBSO at Symphony Hall

This year is Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, with musicians everywhere celebrating the irreplaceable composer, conductor and musical polymath. The highlight of Kazuki Yamada’s first concert as the CBSO’s new Principal Guest conductor was a wonderfully invigorating performance of the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story complete with finger-snapping and cries of “Mambo!” from the players. The playing sparkled and mixed the musical ingredients perfectly; a rainbow of carefully shaded and crisply delivered rhythms, street-wise New York pizzazz and just a dash of schmaltz. There were magical moments too, like the pizzicato strings for Maria and the all stops out Mahler-on-the-Hudson orchestration of Somewhere. Every section took a fully-deserved bow and Yamada, a diminutive bundle of bobbing energy, got a rightly raucous reception. Korngold’s violin concerto got a sniffy critical drubbing when it was premiered in 1947 – as did almost everything tonal and tuneful – but is now

Holst; The Planets (Guild GMCD7814)

Adrenaline pumps all through this disc, re-released now after being set down during just one remarkable day 25 years ago. Part of the honour must go to recording producer Robert Matthew-Walker (also author of the excellent insert-notes) who captures so much of the detail coaxed from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra by conductor Mike Batt (yes, he of the Wombles and Watership Down). Holst's daughter Imogen wrote sniffily about Mars, but hearing this reading might have changed her mind; it's urgent, you can shudder at the wood of the bow tapping on violin strings, and the organ is an apocalyptic presence. Venus is poignant and searching, Jupiter simply teems, Saturn is a marmoreal march-past and Uranus sears, with remarkable horns and organ glissando. Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance No.1 is a gratuitous encore (perhaps they still had time to fill!), with the composer's beloved trombones fizzingly to the fore. -- Christopher Morley

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at the Elgar Hall, University of Birmingham

Themed concerts are ten-a-penny. Much rarer are ones which stimulate the imagination and confound lazy preconceptions with music that's mutually illuminating. The BPO's War and Peace concert was one such. Everything was played with conviction, flair and dedication, creating a truly memorable afternoon. Superficially Berg's ThreeFragments from his opera Wozzeck and Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony inhabit widely separated music worlds: Viennese atonal expressionism versus English pastoralism. Only superficially: actually a skein of cultural and historical threads connect these works which were forged in the fire-storm of World War I, in which both composers served. Michael Lloyd's alert conducting, and players who rose to every technical challenge – horns, first trumpet and brass section take a bow – ensured that, confounding those lazy expectations, so much tender lyricism emerged from Berg's harrowing score while VW's anything-but-cosy pastoralism was

Arcadia Music St Laurence's Church, Ludlow by David Hart

Mixing a theme with composers the little three-day Arcadia Music festival on the Shropshire-Hereford border has aquirky individuality that is certainly different. This year the focus was on Bach and spirituals (though I failed to spot any relevance between them in baritone Thorvald Blough’s rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ at the start) which two piano works by the festival’s originator, Eleanor Alberga, addressed quite persuasively. In ‘It’s Time’, played with virtuosic commitment by Joanna MacGregor, Alberga’s extended improvisatory style evocatively referenced African chant (once the rumbling left-hand tremolos had run their course) and the piece eventually faded out in gentle waves of elegiac ecstasy. ‘Oh Chaconne!’, a deconstruction and reassembly of the finale to Bach’s D minor Partita was more cogently fashioned, if rather too reliant on decorative patterns; but when things became increasingly muscular and energetic (Alberga herself performed with considerable aplomb) the effect


A new home means a new beginning, and Orchestra of the Swan is launching its new residency at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with a range of fresh initiatives. Though its home is in Stratford-upon-Avon, OOTS has long used Birmingham Town Hall, where it was Artist-in-Association, as its city base for Wednesday matinee concerts, but various factors have led to this change of venue, not least, I suspect, the sheer dauntingness of the building-site obstacle-course which surrounds Victoria Square and Paradise Circus. To soften the pill of this move slightly out of Birmingham city centre and on into Eastside, the burgeoning campus of Birmingham City University of which RBC is part, Orchestra of the Swan has negotiated an attractive deal with the Clayton Hotel. The Clayton is a useful stopping-point on the 10 to 15-minute walk from Moor Street railway station (New Street and Snow Hill are not much further away), and is just adjacent to the many bus stops which serve the area. They tell

TCHAIKOVSKY AND BEETHOVEN - CBSO at Symphony Hall - Norman Stinchcombe

Febrile, furious and triumphantly joyous – this was the performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony one longs to hear. The Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis took risks, which is appropriate for a work which made Weber declare that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse”. In the Dionysian finale the CBSO became a musical juggernaut with Carydis pushing the accelerator to the floor and accepting the challenge of Beethoven’s notoriously optimistic metronome marking. I expected the wheels to come off but it’s tribute to the CBSO players that not only did they reach the finishing line in one piece but that they delivered a brilliantly articulated and weighted performance. In the wonderful Allegretto Carydis urged the strings to play with the utmost quietness – clarity aided by his dividing the fiddles left and right – making the most of the movement’s magic. The conductor’s countryman Perikis Koukos’s In Memoriam, a tender miniature threnody for strings provided an effective preliminary

WAR AND PEACE - Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Welsh National Opera's production of Prokofiev's War and Peace is a huge testimony to the strength of WNO as a company theatre of the highest order. Its squad of principals multi-casts dazzlingly, its production team achieves wonders of stage-craft, its orchestra (despite one blip during the performance I heard) delivers this wonderful, multi-coloured score with a total sense of unanimous commitment, and the chorus is, as ever, magnificent. And what choruses these are, surging with a patriotic devotion to Mother Russia that could easily be equated with Welshness here in the Principality. At times we are reminded of the protectionist fervour of Wagner's Mastersingers, and indeed, the saviour, Field-Marshal Kutusov (the heartwarming Simon Bailey, who also multicasts as one of Napoleon's nasties) is accoladed like Hans Sachs in that opera. Another triumph of multicasting comes with David Stout's Napoleon, emerging from several other roles with make-up brilliantly a

CELESTIAL BIRD (Signum Classics) by Christopher Morley

Released in honour of the composer's 50th birthday, this CD bringing a selection of Roxanna Panufnik's small-scale choral music is one to treasure. Much of the content reflects her warm religious devotion, and these soaring performances from Ex Cathedra directed by Jeffrey Skidmore joyously respond to this heartening faith. But Panufnik reaches out beyond her own Catholicism to encompass other religions and cultures, as the stunning opening reveals. Unending Love, a setting of the Indian poet Tagore, is a glorious fusion of Indian ragas (here delivered by Milapfest and the evocative Carnatic singer Ashnaa Sasikran) and western choral tradition; the result is hypnotically magical. This whole disc has a heartwarmingly family feel to it, many of the works prompted by events involving people close to Panufnik, not least the St Aidan's Prayer, with her son Benedict Macklow-Smith as treble soloist. The insert-booklet is a delight. Christopher Morley

SINFONIA OF BIRMINGHAM - 25th anniversary in Warwick by Christopher Morley

It's 25 years since the Sinfonia of Birmingham gave its inaugural concert in St Mary's Church, Moseley. On Saturday October 6 it celebrates its Silver Jubilee with its first visit to another St Mary's, the Parish Church in Warwick, with Elgar's Violin Concerto and Brahms' Symphony no.2 (7.30pm). Zoe Beyers is soloist in the Elgar, and Michael Seal is the conductor (his 68th concert with the Sinfonia), and both, like so many musicians who have performed with the orchestra, have strong associations with the CBSO. The Sinfonia has performed throughout the Midlands region, with a repertoire ranging from Bach to Berio. This forthcoming season sees it moving on from Warwick to play in Solihull School Chapel (Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem and The Lark Ascending), Pershore Abbey (a massive programme of Berlioz' Harold in Italy and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony), and joins the Solihull Chandos Choir in Shirley Methodist Church for Haydn's Harmoniemes

Orchestra Of St John - St John's Church, Bromsgrove by Christopher Morley

It's quite something when in a traditional-style programme of overture, concerto, symphony it's the overture which rouses most interest and acclaim, and this was the case when the Orchestra of St John presented its latest concert. Hamish McCunn was 19 when he composed his overture Land of the Mountain and the Flood, a gorgeous work which guaranteed his memory through the 1970s BBCTV series Sutherland's Law (Iain Cuthbertson starring as the genial Procurator-Fiscal), as well as a couple of CD recordings. It affords wonderful opportunity for the cellos, gratefully taken here by OSJ's quartet, shaped under the enthusiastic conducting of Richard Jenkinson, himself a cellist. All other departments responded to this inspiration, and the result was uplifting, before an event which I can only remember happening with OSJ, when the concertmaster left the leader's desk to take the mantle of concerto soloist. Once again violinist Charlotte Moseley achieved this feat, rev