Showing posts from November, 2018

CBSO review

TWO COMPOSERS WHO HATED EACH OTHER ON THE SAME CBSO PROGRAMME CBSO Symphony Hall **** Though they did once manage a civilised dinner together, Tchaikovsky loathed Brahms with a passion. "That scoundrel, that talentless bastard," he wrote of him. Yet Tchaikovsky was ill-at-ease writing piano concertos, and Brahms wrote undoubtedly the world's greatest, which we heard during this packed matinee which whimsically brought the two composers together. Brahms' Second Piano Concerto combines grandeur with chamber-music intimacy, and this account from soloist Rudolf Buchbinder and the CBSO under Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla was a perfect fusion of the two qualities. Important orchestral solos (horn from Elspeth Dutch, clarinet from Oliver Janes, and, above all, the tenderly-rendered cello obbligato from a player unknown to me -- probably a triallist, as principal Eduardo Vassallo was sitting modestly on the back desk, taking everything in) were beautifully integrated

Dream of Gerontius review

AN UNDER-POWERED DREAM OF GERONTIUS THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS City of Birmingham Choir at Birmingham Town Hall **** Hearing the Dream of Gerontius in the Birmingham Town Hall where it first came into the world is always something very special, and though so much has changed regarding the stage layout, the choir stalls and the audience seating, some reminders of that early autumn morning in 1900 remain: the magnificently imposing organ, and the gallery restored to its original level, revealing the full length of the windows. Elgar would have applauded the technical accuracy of Sunday's performance from the City of Birmingham Choir and the remarkable Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra under the calm, understated conducting of Adrian Lucas, but I feel he would have been disappointed in an account which held back from the last degree of emotional involvement. Certainly there was some fine choral singing, beginning with the unaccompanied Kyrie Eleison which had so jinxed th

CBSO review

UK PREMIERE OF WEINBERG'S FINAL SYMPHONY CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ This was the perfect pairing – the final symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg, receiving its UK premiere, and that of his musical mentor Dmitri Shostakovich. Both are death-haunted works replete with musical quotation and self-quotation but while Shostakovich's Symphony No.15 is tantalisingly elusive, Weinberg's No.21 combines personal anguish with public grief, dedicated to the Nazi victims of Warsaw's Jewish ghetto. It's a big, bold work, the six sections of it's single movement lasting nearly an hour using around 100 players. The imposing opening funereal Largo suggests this will be an implacable granite work but throughout the symphony Weinberg spotlights instruments, as if individual voices from the ghetto step forward to speak to us. A violin, normally the orchestral leader but here soloist Gidon Kremer, narrates wistfully; a pianist dreamily recalls Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G min

WNO War and Peace review

DAVID POUNTNEY'S PRODUCTION BLASTS YOU INTO SUBMISSION WAR AND PEACE Welsh National Opera at Birmimgham Hippodrome **** "The forces of twelve European nations have invaded Russia. The enemy has ravaged our cities, ransacked our houses, slain our children and our fathers". If the opening Epigraph of Prokofiev's opera War and Peace sounds drastic on paper, just imagine it being hurled at you by the full force of Welsh National Opera's orchestra – and of course, their world-beating chorus. With its very first barrage, David Pountney's production blasts you into submission, and for much of its four hour length, there's no letting up. "It's basically Stalin – the Musical" commented my companion Pountney certainly knows how to use the visual power of Soviet propaganda – which, at the time of its conception in the 1940s, was exactly what this opera was. Epic battle scenes from the 1966 Mosfilm movie of Tolstoy's novel are projecte

Kidderminster Choral Society review

A JEWEL IN WYRE FOREST'S CROWN KIDDERMINSTER CHORAL SOCIETY Kidderminster Town Hall **** There is a jewel in the Wyre Forest's cultural crown which is Kidderminster Choral Society. Their performances leap out after inspirational preparation under conductor Geoffrey Weaver, they engage the Elgar Sinfonia, a scratch orchestra which achieves miracles on the barest minimum of rehearsal, and they present programmes which are always stimulating and never (dare I say it?) "provincial". Saturday was a case in point, when after a joyously-sprung Dvorak G minor Slavonic Dance and a rapt Song to the Moon from his opera Rusalka, Linda Richardson the soloist, we heard the UK premiere of Weaver's own Te Deum, first performed in Hong Kong last July. This is a magnificent example of all that is best about the Anglican choral tradition, blazing in glory, chastely contemplative, and here with the bonus of vibrant orchestration. Verbal rhythms were clear, there were

Voix Joyeuses review

A CHARMING VOCAL DUO ENCHANTS AT BIRMINGHAM CATHEDRAL VOIX JOYEUSES Birmingham Cathedral **** Somehow an elegant baroque cathedral was transformed into an intimate drawing-room this evening, purely thanks to the atmosphere created by the charming vocal duo Voix Joyeuses. The joy in performing together displayed by soprano Jill Saunders and mezzo Alison Cripps is palpable. They have a wonderfully natural body-language, their voices are well-blended, and in Rob Challinor they have an accompanist who can conjure a gamut of orchestral timbres from his piano. This delightful evening was promoted in aid of the Anthony Nolan Trust, and engendered an immense amount of goodwill. The programme contained some substantial offerings in a variety of languages, but was never intimidating, and ranged from Handel to Wagner, adding bonnes bouches from Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. Highlights included a resonant aria from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur (Alison

CD review

PIANO NOCTURNES: David Quigley (Avie AV2388) ★★★ The Irish pianist cast his net pretty wide for this anthology aimed at Classic FM territory, 70 minutes of late-night listening with lights dimmed and a glass of wine in hand. Some pieces are pleasant but not stimulating enough to return to frequently; Philip Hammond's plaintive Is Im Bo Agus Eiriu, derived from an 18th century Irish melody, and Philip Martin's pastoral Oiche Ceoil for example. John Field was a pioneer in the form and his Nocturne in E flat major Op.55 No.2 is a charming mixture of simplicity and suavity, winningly played by Quigley. It's good to hear rare examples of the genre from Clara Schumann, Faure, Debussy, Grieg and Tchaikovsky while Respighi's fervent Notturno will stop you from nodding off. More demanding fare – Chopin's Op 55 No 2 and Liszt's Les cloches de Genève – while well played by Quigley lack the penetration and flair of the finest interpreters. Norman Stinchcombe

CBSO Panufnik review

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY HEARS A WORTHY SUCCESSOR TO BRITTEN'S WAR REQUIEM FAITHFUL JOURNEY CBSO AT SYMPHONY HALL ***** Roxanna Panufnik's Faithful Journey is a work worthy to be set alongside Britten's War Requiem, so seamless is its interweaving of settings from the Latin Mass with poetry in the vernacular, and so powerfully engaged is its expression. This Mass for Poland celebrates (though that is hardly the word, so painful has been the struggle until eventual liberation from Soviet shackles) the centenary of the nationhood of that noble country, and is a co-commission from the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (who premiered the work a fortnight ago in Katowice) and the CBSO supported by the John Feeney Charitable Trust, this being its UK premiere, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. I wonder if it will ever receive performances as gripping as this, with a seriously-committed CBSO, a polyglot CBSO Chorus so expertly coached by Julian Wilkins, an amazingly

WNO Cenerentola review

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE IS BEATEN OVER THE HEAD WITH KEN DODD'S TICKLING STICK LA CENERENTOLA WELSH NATIONAL OPERA AT BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME *** Rossini disingenuously designated his Cinderella opera a dramma giocoso – as Mozart did with Don Giovanni – but Rossini gives us pure froth. Joan Front's production revels in its lack of substance: costumes, sets and make-up are a riot of garish colours, like a pantomime where almost everyone looks like Widow Twanky. The comic action is broad, all in upper case, triply underlined, with exclamation marks. It felt like being nudged in the ribs for three hours while simultaneously being beaten over the head with Ken Dodd's tickling stick. The music itself often sounds like a parody of Rossini's stylistic tics with every vocal line encrusted barnacle-like with grace notes and trills while the music roller-coasters up and down with frequent crescendos. The orchestra under Tomas Hanus played it for all it was worth – and more.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth - CBSO at Symphony Hall by David Hart *****

With a Russian violinist and Russian conductor in Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and an orchestra adept at playing in any musical language, this was a concert which promised to sound, if nothing else, stylistically authentic.  But it went much further than just ticking boxes. For example Stanislav Kochanovsky (here making his UK debut, so full marks to the CBSO for spotting a genuinely major talent) let much of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 unfold in an almost intuitive fashion, allowing space for important solos – Oliver Janes’ dark opening clarinet, Elspeth Dutch’s mellow horn in the Andantino – to blossom. String tuttis throughout were also finely drawn and telling brass contributions expressively disciplined.  And the way Kochanovsky gradually increased the impetus of the finale, so it ended with a genuine feeling of culmination, was particularly well handled. Even more impressive was the Janáček ‘Taras Bulba’ Rhapsody we heard earlier. Kochanovsky’s clear, precise direction (long ba

CD review Parry Symphony no.4

PARRY: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Gamba (Chandos CHAN 10994) **** Chandos recorded Parry's five symphonies in the early '90s but this new recording of his Fourth Symphony in E minor conducted by Rumon Gamba offers us something different. Instead of the standard 1909 revision, with the stirring moniker Finding the Way and programmatic titles for the four movements, we have a fresher, less disciplined, slightly wayward but equally interesting 1889 first version. Parry supplied a new scherzo for the revision but the original A minor has charm and humour – like Elgar at his frothiest – and the storm-tinged finale relaxes into an optimistic climax. Gamba elicits a vital and engaging performance from the fine orchestra with a nice bloom to the sound. The score was prepared and edited by Jeremy Dibble who did the same for the miniature ballet Proserpine (1912) – with the ladies of the BBC National Chorus of Wales – and Three Movements from Suite Moderne (1892), enjoyable lig

Now That's What I Call 175

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY FINDS BIRMINGHAM CITY UNIVERSITY'S 175TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATIONS A LITTLE MUTED                                     NOWTHAT'S WHAT I CALL 175                                     Royal Birmingham Conservatoire **** Trace previous incarnations of Birmingham City Universitybackwards through University of Central England, City of BirminghamPolytechnic, various links with the Birmingham and Midland Institute, and youend up with the Birmingham Government School of Design, set up to encourageartistic creativity which would make our goods attractive to buyers across thewater. To celebrate BGSD's founding 175 years ago BCU promoted thisspecial concert in its showpiece Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's Bradshaw Hall,compered by the amiable John Suchet and showcasing both present-day studentsand welcoming the return of Punch the Sky, a world-rock party band who paidexhilarating tribute to the city's Dexy's Midnight Runners and Electric LightOrche

WNO La Traviata

LA TRAVIATA WELSH NATIONAL OPERA AT BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME **** Norman Stinchcombe sees an interesting nuance in this much-loved opera. A fine individual performance can change one's perspective on a favourite opera. As Germont, father of the errant young Alfredo who is well on his way to becoming a wastrel, the baritone Roland Wood's incisive singing and authoritative presence made one rethink the dynamics of a familiar work. In the Act 2 confrontation between Germont and Violetta instead of the buttoned-up but actually soft-hearted old buffer we sometimes get, Wood gave us a tough man – Pura siccome un angelo tender but not lachrymose – who finds it hard to overcome his distaste at dealing with Violetta and returns her embrace with a wince. It made both his recognition of the dying Violetta's innate nobility, and the castigation of his son's callousness in the gambling scene, more powerful – a credit to David McVicar's direction. Linda Richardson (Violett


CHRISTOPHER MORLEY TALKS TO ONE OF OUR MOST APPROACHABLE COMPOSERS ROXANNA PANUFNIK'S FAITHFUL JOURNEY It's unchivalrous to refer to a lady's age, but the composer Roxanna Panufnik is proudly celebrating her 50th birthday this year, already with new CD releases (one recorded by Ex Cathedra) and a world premiere at the Last Night of the Proms. She is also celebrating her new status as a dual-national, having recently been granted Polish citizenship. This pragmatic move in these uncertain will-we-or-won't-we-Brexit times comes about via the fact that Roxanna's father was Polish. Andrzej Panufnik bravely defected from Poland in the mid 1950s (his escape via Switzerland is the stuff of films), and before settling in London in order to resume his lifelong vocation as a composer, he spent two years as a convention-busting principal conductor of the CBSO. Roxanna is fiercely proud of her Polish heritage as well as her Roman Catholicism, and her perhaps


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 McDonald (Eileen

orchestra of the swan at RBC

ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ****8 CHRISTOPHER MORLEY ENJOYS A STUDENT WORLD PREMIERE Having given many world premieres as a cellist, Julian Lloyd Webber, on the podium of the resourceful Bradshaw Hall in his own Conservatoire, conducted his first-ever orchestral world premiere. This was Surround, by 4th-year composition student Rosie Tee, the first in a planned series of premieres from RBC students to be given during each concert of Orchestra of the Swan's exciting new residency here. And Surround made an excellent impression, its three minutes unfolding with well-imagined orchestral timbres delivering subtly-coloured chords, and creating an Ivesian effect of shifting stasis -- and the little flute linger at the end was intriguing: question or affirmation? The rest of the programme was given over to two of the greatest youthful prodigies in history (and not just musical, say I). Mendelssohn was represented by his teenage String Symphony no.6, its o

BCMG feature

                                    BIRMINGHAMCONTEMPORARY MUSIC GROUP                                      CHRISTOPHER MORLEY PREVIEWS TWO FASCINATING CONCERTS FROM BCMG                                        Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's concerts on November 18 andDecember 9 will be both a poignant looking-back and an optimistic step into thefuture.   Oliver Knussen, BCMG's long-term Artist-in-Association, was to haveconducted the November 18 concert, but following his sadly premature death onlyin his mid-60s on July 8 this year, his place on the podium will be taken byStefan Asbury.   But Olly will be a major presence here, with the Birmingham premiere ofhis O Hototogisu, funded through BCMG's remarkable crowd-funding SoundInvestment scheme.  This beautiful setting ofselected haiku for soprano, solo flute and ensemble was in fact his lastcommission, and the texts weave an intricate image of the Hototogisu - theLesser Cuckoo - as it calls out high above a


CBSO YOUTH ORCHESTRA AT SYMPHONY HALL ***** CHRISTOPHER MORLEY MARVELS AT THESE YOUNGSTERS TACKLING TWO WORLD WAR II SYMPHONIES It was a brilliant idea to pair two symphonies closely associated with World War II, one (Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem) composed just before the outbreak, the other (Shostakovich Seven) written while the composer was on fire-watching duties during the siege of Leningrad. And it was poignant to hear them performed by young people whose predecessors would have been caught up in that conflict, and in the Great War prior to that; and particularly poignant that this concert should have been given on the centenary of the death in action of Wilfred Owen, the poet who meant so much to Britten. After a week of intensive training from members of the parent orchestra, the CBSO Youth Orchestra proudly set out its stall under the remarkable conducting of Michael Seal, delivering these highly emotional scores with a commendable maturity of control, depth of to

Berlioz Requiem CD review

BERLIOZ GRANDE MESSE DES MORTS Tødenes / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra & Choirs / Gardner (Chandos CHSA 5219) *** NORMAN STINCHCOMBE MISSES BOMBAST IN BERLIOZ 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, are 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 Sanctus tenor Bror Magnus Tødenes sounds about a mile away. The recording works best in the gentle and tender choral passage

Vienna Tonkunstler review

VIENNA TONKUNSTLER AT SYMPHONY HALL **** NORMAN STINCHCOMBE HEARS A REFRESHING BEETHOVEN FIFTH SYMPHONY Beethoven's fifth symphony is a guaranteed audience-pleaser and pretty much conductor-proof. Not entirely of course. Four years ago Andrés Orozco-Estrada, perhaps daunted by the symphony's stature, opted to whiz the Vienna Tonkünstler through it, in a thoroughly dispiriting and soulless way. Under their music director Yutaka Sado the Vienna Tonkünstler delivered a performance refreshingly and upliftingly different. The opening four-note motif was given due weight, neither romantically prolonged nor rattled off like an actor embarrassed by the fame of "To be or not to be". The orchestra's bright and alert wind players illuminated details throughout: vital parts for oboe and the pair of horns tellingly executed. If the sinister scherzo was a little light on devilry, the finale was as thrilling as it ought to be so that the repeated affirmative Cs never sound

Mike Spencer reports on the state of inner Birmingham transport.

Birmingham Town Hall seen from the Library I promise not to write to Chris's blog too often but having listened to his (quite justifiable) rants on the difficulties of  the public when attempting to visit either the Town Hall or Symphony Hall for a relaxing concert, I thought members of his 'blog' might appreciate a panoramic view of the area as seen this week.  Although the photos were taken quite randomly on my iPhone, by some miracle of intrusive technology, Google produced this panoramic view quite automatically and without asking. Its equally interesting to compare this apparent devastation with an engraving done by H W Brewer,  a wonderful "Bird's Eye View of Birmingham in 1886" which now sits proudly on our blog header.   One can only hope that at least some of this mess will be sorted out sooner rather than later. But having also noted the Metro extension laboriously climbing its way up from New Street Station heading towards the Town

CBSO 1.11.18

                                                              CBSO at  Symphony Hall **** A DISAPPOINTING DVORAK CELLO CONCERTO Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus Overture might have seemed a puny choice to follow the spectacular act which was the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra's stunning Rite of Spring curtain-raiser, but in fact it was arguably the most successful offering in this overture-concerto-symphony programme from the CBSO. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov had us thinking, quite rightly, that we were in for an undiscovered Beethoven symphony with a portentous introduction, timpani commanding our attention from their unusual positioning to our left, and then we were left marvelling at the Figaro-like fizzing of the main part of this attractive little piece. Paul Watkins was soloist in a disappointingly uninvolving account of the wonderful Dvorak Cello Concerto. Certainly his venerable instru

RBC Rite of Spring

RITE OF SPRING Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall ***** CHRISTOPHER MORLEY IS FULL OF ADMIRATION AT RBC STUDENTS' EXPERTISE In recent years students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire have occasionally provided early-evening curtain-raisers to the subsequent CBSO concert. But they were never meant to steal the thunder from the big boys, as this amazing account of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring from the RBC Symphony Orchestra under Michael Seal certainly did. Seal, Conservatoire alumnus, former sub-principal second violin with the CBSO and now its associate conductor, brought a clear, unflappable beat to negotiate the youngsters through this notoriously difficult score, and during rehearsals had obviously coached them to listen to each other -- and didn't that pay dividends in the tendril-awakening opening, launched by a bassoon who made that solo's demands seem easy. This was an account of awesome expertise. detail which ha