Showing posts from June, 2019

Alice Sara Ott review

AN EMOTIONAL STANDING OVATION AT SYMPHONY HALL Alice Sara Ott at Symphony Hall *** She began the year celebrating ten years of recording with Deutsche Grammophon and undertaking a world-wide tour to promote her latest album Nightfall. Subsequent cancellations and health problems were explained when the thirty-year-old pianist was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. All music lovers wish her well and hope that she has many years of recital and recordings to come – exemplified by the small but enthusiastic audience's emotional standing ovation. The original recital plan was curtailed with Ravel's fiendishly demanding Gaspard de la nuit dropped, the interval omitted and a shortened programme played straight through. There were no signs of any technical compromises or diminution of executant ability: trills crisp and clear, no excessive pedal, and the thunderous double octave run down the keyboard in Chopin Ballade No 1 was thrilling. My reservations were about interpre

CBSO Damnation of Faust review

CBSO'S BERLIOZ HAS NORMAN STINCHCOMBE ON THE EDGE OF HIS SEAT Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ An amiable drunken singing contest ensued as the CBSO Chorus's men divided into raucous students and lusty soldiers, everyone out for a night on the town – simultaneously singing in different languages and time signatures. It could have been cacophony but Berlioz brilliantly engineered a harmonious and thrilling climax. It's characteristic of his hybrid work, neither cantata nor opera but a hotch-potch. Yet when played and sung like this, with whole-hearted conviction, energy and edge-of-the-seat excitement, it's a glorious one. Under Edward Gardner's baton even the Hungarian March – a sparkling but irrelevant orchestral showpiece– seemed integral when played with such swagger and verve. Faust is a tricky role, anti-hero and self-absorbed seducer, much of his music inward, and pensive with the dying fall of ennui. Saimir Pirgu was ar

Longborough Anna Bolena review

BIRDS IN A GILDED CAGE ANNA BOLENA Longborough Festival Opera **** "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived" runs the old mnemonic for Henry VII's six wives. Anne Boleyn is number two on the list, so it's a safe guess that Donizetti's Anna Bolena is not going to end well. The success of the opera depends upon how much suspense a director can generate while getting there. By that measure, Jenny Miller's new production for Longborough Festival Opera scores handsomely. The atmosphere is shadowy, and Nate Gibson's set is dominated by a fretwork screen whose swirls and curves echo a Tudor ceiling: a seductively beautiful cage. The characters wear elegant contemporary evening dress - far too impressed with themselves to realise that they're trapped - and Miller deftly helps the audience stay one step ahead of them. Lukas Jakobski's strapping (vocally as well as physically) Henry toys with his human prey, and at the end of

Mansfield Park review

STUDENTS EXCEL IN RBC SUMMER OPERA MANSFIELD PARK Royal Birmingham Conservatoire at Crescent Theatre, Birmingham ***** Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's Vocal Department has come up yet again with a winning choice of opera to showcase the ensemble skills of its talented students. This summer it is Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park, set to a libretto by Alasdair Middleton which does its adroit best to make sense of Jane Austen's convoluted tangle, and which, in an instantly communicative score both pays tribute to pre-existing models (some wonderful time-stopping set-pieces) and affords a springboard to promising young singers. As usual the show is double-cast, and the one I heard on Saturday afternoon was remarkable (as were the mute servant supernumaries). The work is slightly too overpowering for the compact Studio here (the opening full-company entry came as quite a shock), and it takes quite a time to figure out each character and their motivations (I tried to

CBSO Tippett, Beethoven, Schubert review

CBSO REHABILITATES TIPPETT CBSO Symphony Hall ***** Why does anybody attempt to navigate Five Ways and Broad Street any more, a city gateway made virtually impassable by the ongoing construction of the Metro, a vanity project no-one I know actually wants? But fight your way to the other end and you're rewarded with riches, with a CBSO playing at the top of its form in one of the world's greatest concert-halls. And how good it was on Thursday to hear the orchestra making its contribution to the long-overdue rehabilitation of the music of Sir Michael Tippett. His Concerto for Double String Orchestra, bustling with vitality and bursting with heart, was joyously delivered by the CBSO under Edward Gardner (who has Tippett's music in his fingertips), the lines beautifully shaped and balanced in a reading combining energy and delicacy. In a neat twist of programming, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto (a work which had lain behind the inspiration o

Sibelius and Schubert CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS TWO NEW CDS WITH CBSO CONNECTIONS SIBELIUS: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Oramo (Chandos CHAN 20136) ★★★★★ Sakari Oramo has always been a committed conductor of his countryman's music and during his tenure with the CBSO recorded a complete symphony cycle – uneven and sometimes lightweight – for Erato. This new Sibelius disc shows Oramo taking a tougher, weightier and more trenchant view. The performance of the Lemminkäinen Suite is magnificent aided by a splendidly wide-range recording – the thunderous timpani rolls and Alison Teale's keening cor anglais in The Swan of Tuonela are captured thrillingly. It was recorded in Watford Colosseum last year – the same venue where Sir Colin Davis recorded it for RCA with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2000. Oramo's Lemminkäinen in Tuonela takes 14.47 while Davis's is an expansive 18.19 – yet both work perfectly. Oramo's hero strikes our determinedly, confident and valiant: Davis anticipates his

Ex Cathedra Summer Music by Candlelight

EX CATHEDRA BRING SOME SUNSHINE TO A SODDEN SUMMER Summer Music by Candlelight, Ex Cathedra at St Philip's Cathedral ★★★★ After a miserable sodden start to summer here was a concert which raised a smile and elevated the spirits. At the 2017 concert candles were hardly needed as the setting sun blazed through the stained glass windows but here they were vital in dispersing the gloom. Ex Cathedra's director Jeffrey Skidmore, and associate conductor Sarah Latto, put together a programme of music and poetry that was amazingly diverse – from sixth-century plainchant to an arrangement of Cliff Richard's 1963 chart-topper Summer Holiday – yet which gelled perfectly. There was also a world premiere of Stevie Wishart's Voicing the Dawn which combined recorded birdsong with sopranos from the choir singing those same fragments of dawn chorus. They must have been devilishly difficult to pitch accurately (discreet use of tuning forks held near ears was needed) but very effe

Orchestra of the Swan review

A HEARTENING AFTERNOON FROM ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ***** For a multitude of reasons the final concert of the Orchestra of the Swan's current season at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire was a heartening affair. The orchestra has never sounded on better form, the strings rich and full, taking full advantage of the Bradshaw Hall's encouraging acoustic, the winds eloquently-toned, brass and timpani a presence strong but never strident. And it was good to welcome back Andrew Griffiths as conductor, modest but communicative on the podium, and sharing a relationship of joyful enthusiasm with the players. Griffiths and OOTS proved wonderful collaborators in piano concertos played by two young prizewinners, both of them showing immense promise. Domonkos Csabay, 2018 RBC Prize Winner, gave us Mozart's delicious A major Concerto, K 414, pearly in articulation, phrasing affectionate without being cloying, and gently ex

Chineke! Orchestra review

GRIZZLED OLD MUSIC CRITIC TAPS HIS FEET Chineke! Orchestra Symphony Hall ***** There's something rather wonderful and intriguing about Europe's first majority Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) symphony orchestra. Founded in 2015 with a mission to 'champion change and celebrate diversity' Chineke! has rapidly become a world-wide phenomenon. So why wasn't something so obviously needed attempted ages ago? Never mind, it's happened now and the results continue to be very impressive. In their 2017 debut appearance at Symphony Hall Chineke! played safe, with Elgar and Mendelssohn the traditional offerings, while some little-known Samuel Coleridge-Taylor doffed a hat to 'diversity'. Last week's programme, though, under the wise and experienced hands of multi-talented conductor Wayne Marshall contained more rewarding and extended challenges. Grieg's benign Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 held a few surprises, chiefly because it was so well played, Marsha

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra Mahler 5 review

BPO STUN IN MAHLER FIVE BIRMINGHAM PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA Elgar Hall, University of Birmingham ***** Starting in the days of Kenneth Page's music directorship, the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra has long had a proud record of Mahler-playing, and under its present music director, Michael Lloyd, its standards in performing this demanding music are breathtakingly high. Demanding not only technically, but also in terms of blend, attack, expression, dynamics, and not least, control and concentration during these score's vast spans. These enthusiastic amateurs passed every test with flying colours in Sunday afternoon's performance of the Fifth Symphony under Lloyd's committed direction. Part of BPO's success can be attributed to Lloyd's meticulous adherence to Mahler's detailed indications in the score. Sometimes these instructions from the greatest composer/conductor in history can be stifling, but deployed with Lloyd's grip and zip they are

Ripieno Players

CGHRISTOPHER MORLEY GOES BACK IN TIME AND MEETS MUSICAL HOPE FOR THE FUTURE RIPIENO PLAYERS Medicine Art Gallery, New Street **** It was like going back in time, almost half a century since I was last in what was then the RBSA Gallery, home in those days to a charming series of chamber and vocal recitals. It's still just as welcoming, now with home-baked bread and cakes greeting the visitor at the top of the elegant staircase, and with an acoustic which is clear and immediate, but which needs plenty of TLC. And for this crusty old time-travelling critic it was a joy to be immersed in the performances of this talented young string ensemble, largely Royal Birmingham Conservatoire-drawn at a guess (the programme gave no provenance), under the confident and empowering direction of Joe Davies. He is certainly a conductor with something to say, and one to watch out for; I'm afraid I haven't been able to say the same for all the wannabes I've seen come and go

Mozart Travelogue at Lichfield Festival

MOZART: ACROSS EUROPE TO LICHFIELD MOZART TRAVELOGUE by Christopher Morley ) There's nothing new about musical superstars making world tours. 250 years ago Mozart was the hot property traversing Europe (in those days the extent of the musical "world"), and a fascinating programme to be presented at the forthcoming Lichfield Festival by the Mozartists (July 9) takes us on a Mozart travelogue. Ian Page, music director of the Mozartists, tells me how he compiled this enthralling itinerary. "Initially I compiled a list of modern day countries where Mozart had composed, and I came up with seven – the UK, Holland, Italy, Paris, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. I discounted anything that he wrote in Salzburg, his birthplace, but we've included a work that he composed in Vienna, which became his home for the final decade of his life. "The next task was to provide a sequence that had variety, in terms of both orchestration and atmosph

CBSO Mahler Two review

SYMPHONY HALL AND THE CBSO STAR AGAIN IN MAHLER'S "RESURRECTION" SYMPHONY CBSO Symphony Hall ***** 28 years and one day after the CBSO under Simon Rattle officially opened Symphony Hall with Mahler's Second Symphony (Princess Anne in the audience), the orchestra recreated the occasion, this time conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (and with Anne's brother, Prince Edward, in the audience now). . The work has for decades been a signature piece for the CBSO, vastly important in the orchestra's history, conducted by all its music directors since Louis Fremaux, through Rattle, Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons, and now Mirga. It's also a signature piece for Symphony Hall; I can think of no finer venue for the work's demands, with its clear, responsive acoustic, its ability to accommodate all Mahler's offstage and onstage extras, and a blazing organ (something we didn't have 28 years ago). For all the seeming extravagance of its forces, the

Opera North Aida review

VIDEO KILLED THE MUSICAL STAR AIDA Opera North at Symphony Hall **** Some might sneer that Verdi's structural and textural templates are too easily interchangeable between his scores: certainly if you superimpose Aida upon La Traviata, and even the Requiem you could come up with all kinds of permutations where the transfer between works would matter little. But what eloquent templates they are, and the formulas work perfectly in Aida. The riches within this score are manifold, and this semi-staged production by Opera North did the music full justice. So experienced in Italian opera, Richard Armstrong conducted a sweeping yet detailed account of this panoramic work. The Orchestra of Opera North played stunningly, from the wispily high violins evoking nocturnal sounds on the banks of the Nile, to the rasping cimbasso in the triumphant pageantry of celebration -- and the offstage brass, including natural straight trumpets, added a huge frisson. Similarly the remarkable

Birmingham Bach Choir centenary

BIRMINGHAM BACH CHOIR CELEBRATES ITS CENTENARY BIRMINGHAM BACH CHOIR CENTENARY by Christopher Morley There are 44 Bach Choirs in the United Kingdom, and 222 worldwide, as Paul Spicer tells me. And the Bach Choir that Paul has been conducting here in Birmingham ("27 years, but it doesn't feel like it") is currently celebrating its centenary, 100 years which involved a slight change of name along the way. "When I started with the choir it was the Birmingham Bach Society as you know. But Nick Fisher, then the Chairman, and I felt that it was now simply a choir and did not do any of the additional events which the organisation had originally done so we thought it more appropriate to call ourselves the Birmingham Bach Choir – a new name for a new era." Paul goes on to tell me how the choir developed. "The origins of the choir were very small-scale, as these things often are. It was started by a Bach enthusiast, Bernard Jackson, w


MAGGIE COTTON REVELS IN SPRINGTIME CBSO A SPRING SYMPHONY CBSO at Symphony Hall ***** A good turn-out for the afternoon Symphony Hall concert, the cheery mature audience eagerly anticipating a refreshing programme. The hardworking CBSO has recently returned from a three week tour of Europe so this sunny afternoon concert helped to lead us back into the full season. Japanese guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, known by the CBSO as a favourite guest, was in charge - noted by smiles from players. Look out for more concerts in the future with this delightful artist. A reduced orchestra , fielding sparse wind, charmed all with 18-year-old Mozart's Symphony No 29. This familiar symphony was somewhat marred however, by grossly exaggerated physical antics from guest leader, Raphael Christ - to be repeated throughout the whole programme. Full-on brass fronted Liszt's First Piano Concerto- matched by fireworks from soloist Cedric Tiberghien, a young musician with 50 co

Longborough Das Rheingold review

LONGBOROUGH TRIUMPHS YET AGAIN IN WAGNER DAS RHEINGOLD Longborough Festival Opera ***** You want to hear definitive Wagner in a country-house theatre which has been shaped to accommodate that composer's grandiose visions? Come to Longborough, nestling in the hills like a Cotswolds Bayreuth, and where the Graham family have just launched their second Ring cycle in ten years. Longborough was the UK's only professional company to stage a complete Ring in 2013, Wagner's bicentenary year, and now has an international renown for Wagner presentation. Much of this success is due to the way conductor Anthony Negus has coached the 70-strong orchestra -- freelancers who over the years have melded themselves into a unit which phrases and breathes as one -- in Wagnerian style. Under his baton these huge scores have shape and pace, and rhythmic detail which belies any received ideas of Wagner as "heavy". Such qualities are here in abundance in this new staging


ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK MUSIC OF THE SPHERES Aurora Orchestra at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★★ This orchestra takes the musical maxim "have the score in your head not your head in the score" quite literally. They have given a hundred-plus performances in which they eschew scores and play from memory. Any idea that this was just an attention-grabbing gimmick was swept away by an amazingly uplifting, zestful and blazingly energetic performance of Mozart's Jupiter symphony under Aurora's founder and principal conductor Nicholas Collon. The majestic fugal finale's strands were interwoven not just aurally but visibly: with wind and high-string players standing, and fiddles divided antiphonally, the music zipped and darted across the sections. It was like having the symphony's structure physically realized in front of us, emphasized in the encore when the final peroration was repeated with the players surrounding the audience – an astonishing effect

The Ripieno Players

CLARA SCHUMANN AND A YOUNG SPANISH COMPOSER MEET ACROSS TWO CENTURIES THE RIPIENO PLAYERS by Christopher Morley Neglected women composers are at last receiving the recognition they deserve, ranging from the 17th-century Barbara Strozzi, through the late 19th-century Alma Mahler, and right up to the 20th-century Welsh composer Grace Williams, much-advocated by Benjamin Britten. And paramount among all of them is Clara Schumann, muse both to her husband Robert and to his worshipping pupil Johannes Brahms, and mother of so many of Robert's children that she should have lived in a shoe. Clara's composing gifts were all but stifled because of the demands of conjugal domesticity, but her music is at last undergoing rehabilitation, and a concert from the Ripieno Players on June 15 will help advance the cause. Celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth, we will hear six of her Lieder sung by Imogen Russell, plus a nod to hubby with a performance of hi

CBSO Brahms review

RICHARD BRATBY HEARS THE CBSO IN WONDROUS BRAHMS CBSO, Grazinyte-Tyla at Symphony Hall ***** You can tell a lot from the opening of Brahms's Second Symphony. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO began it as if in mid-flow: a broad, sunlit river of music, rolling out as if it had already been going on somewhere else already, and we'd only just tuned in. And if there's one characteristic that defined this performance, it'd be that fusion of inevitability and wonder. There was more to it than just that, of course: colour glowed from every bar, realised in vivid but unfussy detail. Timpanist Matthew Hardy showed that, as well as dealing thunder, he could flush the whole orchestra with deep, dark warmth; and Gražinytė-Tyla played the third movement as a wind serenade, before running without break into the finale – in keeping with her overall vision of the work as a single, exuberant symphonic sweep. Everything pulled towards the final, ringing trombone chord; it work