Showing posts from December, 2018

Odette, by Jessica Duchen

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY REVIEWS AN ENTHRALLING NEW NOVEL ODETTE, by JESSICA DUCHEN Jessica Duchen is an author with a gift for taking pre-existing artistic material and reworking it so that it sits within a convincing, well-researched context. Among her previous novels is Ghost Variations, its narrative telling of the violinist Jelly d'Aranyi's tracking-down of the closeted Schumann concerto for her instrument, and describing so convincingly the 1930s musical milieu in which it all happened, not least in London. Her latest offering is Odette -- a 21st-Century Fairytale, and it makes for gripping reading. Mitzi, a struggling freelance journalist (Duchen writes from experience here), is startled by a swan hurtling through her window and lying injured on the floor, and here begins Duchen's new take on the story of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The swan is, of course, Odette, a Russian princess from the early 19th century who has been cursed by a rival of her father's to

Venera Gimadieva CD review

MOMENTO IMMOBILE: Gimadieva / The Halle / Marciano (Rubicon LC07800) ★★★★ Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva's debut recording deserves a better cover photograph that one looking like a seedy faded 70s Polaroid snap. Once past the naff presentation the nine bel canto arias included reveal a singer with impressive dramatic powers and vocal range who, at 34, is just approaching her prime. The album's title comes from Regnava nel silenzio, the eponymous heroine's aria in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Callas and Sutherland, the role's two greatest interpreters, delineate the singer's options – emphasize drama or sheer beauty of sound. Gimadieva, with her emphatic vibrato, wisely opts for the Callas style: listen to the dread and wonder in her voice on the line di sangue rosseggiò (as red as blood).She brings delicacy to Desdemona's Willow Song from Otello –Rossini's not Verdi's – and sweetens her tone as the ingénue in Ah! Non credea from Bellini'

The Darkest Midnight CD review

THE DARKEST MIDNIGHT – SONGS OF WINTER AND CHRISTMAS: Papagena (Somm Celeste SOMMCD 0189) ★★★★ A wonderfully cheering and joyful disc from the three sopranos and two altos who make up Papagena. Spanning eight centuries and with music from Canada to the Ukraine, the 64-minute programme provides a refreshing break from over-familiar festive fare. It opens with the haunting traditional Irish song Don oíche úd i mBeithil (I Sing of a Night in Bethlehem) in an arrangement by Papagena's co-director Suzzie Vango. The group's impressive clarity of diction, purity of sound and accurate pitching are immediately apparent but there's vibrancy and joie de vivre too in lively items like the Ukrainian Shchedryk (Hark How the Bells) and the medieval English carol Nowell, its catchy rhythm underpinned by a drum. Many pieces have been specially arranged for the album including one of Joni Mitchell's The River and an aria from Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortilèges; even old

Birmingham Philharmonic review

SHOSTAKOVICH AT HIS MOST AWESOME BIRMINGHAM PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA Elgar Hall, University of Birmingham **** Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture might be fustian, but it's exciting fustian, and deserves a performance as committed as the one it received in this all-Russian programme from the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor Michael Lloyd shaped the opening chant eloquently, creating such a contemplative atmosphere from strings and woodwind that the dramatic entry of the full orchestra came as a genuine jolt. Heavy brass were magnificent, folky rhythms were crisply turned, and the famous unison descending-scale string rallentando ground down under brilliant control. But the spectacular, indeed notorious, conclusion proved something of a damp squib. What should have been triumphantly tolling bells were scarcely audible, and there were no cannon, as some orchestra members lamented to me during the interval. After all the clamour, the Suite from Khachaturian's

CBSO review

BRUCH'S VIOLIN CONCERTO RESTORED TO THE STATURE IT DESERVES CBSO Symphony Hall **** Ray Chen was a name new to me, and his gushing CV was less than prepossessing; but I'm so grateful to the CBSO for introducing him to a highly-appreciative Birmingham audience, and for his giving us an account of the much-loved Bruch G minor Violin Concerto which restored to the work the stature it deserves. Chen's was an intense, well-shaped reading, fluent, seamless, and gleamingly clear in articulation, even in multiple-stopping. Melodic lines were beautifully spun (Chen has the joy of playing on the Stradivarius which once belonged to Joseph Joachim, violinistic inspiration to Schumann, Bruch and Brahms), and expressive points were always unobtrusively well-made. I wish all soloists were as clear as Chen in their announcement of regrettable encores, here a Paganini Caprice and then I guess Chen's own fantasia on the Waltzing Matilda of his homeland. The CBSO collaborat

John Wilson Orchestra

AT THE MOVIES The John Wilson Orchestra at Symphony Hall **** Is there anything more delightful than to sit in Symphony Hall revelling in music from the golden days of the Hollywood movies?If you happen to be a film buff like me, the songs and the scores which encompass them will all be familiar, in fact, as John Wilson himself recently said during a radio interview, these melodies are for our generation, and as important to us as Schubert or Schumann were to 19th century audiences. Take for example the stunning suite Max Steiner composed for the 1942 Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid movie : "Now Voyager", which invariably leaves you with a lump in your throat no throat pastille can cure. When Davis walked down the gangplank of the luxury liner, transformed from a depressed Boston spinster aunt, victimised within the wealthy Vale family, into a beautiful, superbly poised woman of the world ( wearing an elegant hat my mother had copied by a milliner with

Books for Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOKS Here's a cosy Christmassy thought. Why not snuggle up with a good book after all the festivities are done for the day and delve into all the medical issues assailing history's greatest composers? That Jealous Demon, my Wretched Health is the title of Jonathan Noble's exploration of these composers' diseases and deaths, and makes for a fascinating read (Boydell Press). Noble, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, arranges his material in terms of whichever malady, and no bars are held in his diagnoses as he turns to each composer who succumbed. I'm more comfortable with the approach of John O'Shea, who in his Music and Medicine of some years ago discusses each composer in a separate chapter devoted to each one (Dent). A cosier read might be John Suchet's biography of Tchaikovsky, the latest in his Classic FM "The Man Revealed" series published by Elliott and Thompson. Like the newsreader's and Classica FM's pre

BCMG Brian Ferneyhough Day

CROWDS FOR CONTEMPORARY MUSIC BRIAN FERNEYHOUGH DAY Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ***** Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's well-attended Brian Ferneyhough Day celebrating the Coventry-born composer's 75th birthday made the most of the brilliant facilities of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire building, worlds apart from the offer available at the Birmingham School of Music when he was a student there during the early 1960s. A conversation with Howard Skempton (a composer whose style is spectacularly simple in comparison with Ferneyhough's comprehensively annotated textures) was followed by the first of two afternoon concerts, during which the birthday-boy was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Birmingham City University. The second concert featured the full panoply of BCMG, partnered by NEXT Musicians (students selected to participate in a unique coaching scheme organised by BCMG and RBC), and conducted by the

Messiah review

THE MAGIC OF MESSIAH HANDEL'S MESSIAH City of Birmingham Choir at Symphony Hall ***** Messiah has to be the favourite oratorio for countless people throughout the ages. Christmas is coming and the well-loved music and words echo down the centuries. This evening's performance by the City of Birmingham Choir and CBSO was memorable and oh, so magical. A capacity audience sat in gentle silence, riveted by what we heard. Conductor Adrian Lucas directed these large forces forces with calm and clear discretion. A multi - talented star, here is a musician who has apparently done it all: composing, performing, accompanying, solo work, teaching, examining, organist, orchestrating and arranging – the list is endless. Noble strings wove their magic throughout, accompanying the massive choir and four soloists. Bass, Andrew Greenan delivered his solo contributions with confidence and dignity. Young tenor soloist Gwillym Bowen also delighted with the clarity of his deliv

Jacquie Lawson e-cards

MIKE HUGHES-CHAMBERLAIN AND JACQUIE LAWSON E-CARDS by Christopher Morley It's always a joy when an e-greetings card plops into your inbox, not least at this festive time of the years. It's easy to understand why the sending of these cyber-messages has become so popular, given the huge cost of postage nowadays At the forefront of this trend are the e-cards produced by Jacquie Lawson, and in addition to the attractive artwork, witty and sensitive storylines, and interactive opportunities offered by these little gems, comes the input of music, atmospheric and appropriate. Whether specially composed or arranged from other sources, these sound-pictures are masterminded by Mike Hughes-Chamberlain, who has made the seamless connection between a musical education and Information Technology in order to create scores for these scores of delightful little gems. He was brought up in Hindhead in Surrey, where his octogenarian mother still runs the music school which she founded in

Orchestra of the Swan review 5.12.18

A JOYOUS MATINEE FROM ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN Royal Birmingham Conservatoire **** Orchestra of the Swan's new residency at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire continues to bring joys, bubbling over in Wednesday's matinee conducted by Michael Collins. Having given a charming and fascinating public conversation, he then launched into a stimulating programme of Stravinsky and Mozart, Stravinsky looking backwards, Mozart bursting the boundaries (Symphony no.40) and looking into a world beyond the stars (the Clarinet Concerto). Collins directed the concerto from his basset-clarinet, a gorgeously liquid instrument with a shudderingly persuasive chalumeau register (often in conspiracy with the lower strings), and added piquant flourishes of ornamentation to decorate these well-trodden melodic lines. His tone was even, nutty and mellow, important notes picked out from surrounding figuration in this captivatingly fluent performance. Led by David le Page

Birmingham Royal Ballet at Birmingham Hippodrome

THE PRODUCTION WAS WONDERFUL, AND SO WAS THE MUSIC TCHAIKOVSKY'S NUTCRACKER Birmingham Royal Ballet Sinfonia at Birmingham Hippodrome ***** Birmingham is so blessed, having two great orchestras, and both of them within days of each other delivering wonderful accounts of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. I was impressed with the CBSO's symphonic reading under Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, but tonight in a packed and rapt Birmingham Hippodrome I was equally impressed with the freshness and joy of the playing of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, halfway through a season's run of this enchanting production of the ballet, but performing with no sense of routine staleness. Philip Ellis was conducting on this occasion, and somehow he made the string complement sound more richly-cushioned than the numbers in the line-up implied. Woodwind solos were lively and eloquent (perky piccolo and gurgling clarinets to the fore), horns effortlessly noble in the magical Waltz of the Flowers, and

The Temple Church Choir

GEORGE THALBEN-BALL AND THE TEMPLE CHURCH CHOIR by Christopher Morley Among the plethora of events spreading the Christmas spirit at Symphony Hall during this festive season is the visit on December 13 from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra joined by the Purcell Singers and the Temple Church Choir, conducted by the much-loved composer John Rutter. Roger Sayer, director of the Temple Church Choir, tells me about the choir's history. "London's Temple Church Choir is formed of 18 boy-choristers and twelve choirmen, and rose to prominence in 1927 when Sir George Thalben-Ball and the treble Ernest Lough made their world-famous recording of Mendelssohn's 'Hear my prayer/ O, for the wings of a Dove'. More recently, we were fortunate to work with John Tavener on the commission and – at the Temple Church itself – premiere of his all-night musical vigil, The Veil of the Temple, "On the morning of Monday 15 June 2015 at Runnymede Meadow, we perfor

Christtmas Oratorio review

GERMAN PURITY BEYOND BIRMINGHAM'S GERMAN CHRISTMAS MARKET BACH'S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall ***** The juxtaposition was exquisite, fighting my way through the venality and conspicuous consumption of the Frankfurt Christmas market clogging Victoria Square into the gracious Town Hall for a rare complete performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, three hours of radiant purity conveyed by Jeffrey Skidmore and his adept Ex Cathedra. Bach never intended these six disparate cantatas, each one designated to its own day in the 12 days of Christmas, to be performed as an entity but Skidmore's grasp over the entire structure, plus the smooth malleability of his choristers singing with an almost one-to-a-part lightness of touch made the whole enterprise seamlessly all of a piece. Soloists emerged smoothly from the ranks of this remarkable choir with Paul Bentley-Angell an outstanding Evangelist, James Robinson a vividly concitato tenor so