Showing posts from July, 2019

Schubert and Berlioz CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS 5-STAR SCHUBERT AND BERLIOZ CDS SCHUBERT DIE SCHÖNE MÜLLERIN: Williams / Burnside (Chandos CHAN 20113) ★★★★ The finest lieder singers have, of course, always characterized the individual songs which make up Schubert's two great cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Nowadays the fashion is for singers to adopt a dramatic persona when performing but Roderick Williams' approach as the love-lorn Miller's apprentice is part of that earlier tradition – intense projection of the text but with no imported method acting. As a baritone he takes the lower-key options but lightens his voice very effectively. His combination of vocal depth but wide-eyed naivete in Am Feierabend (After Work) and Des Müllers Blumen (The Miller's Flowers), for example, recalls the muscular but emotionally vulnerable heroes of Thomas Hardy's rural novels. Iain Burnside's playing is immensely characterful – just listen to the purling brook and grindi

An English Requiem review

RICHARD BRATBY HEARS A 21ST-CENTURY MASTERPIECE AN ENGLISH REQUIEM Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral **** "We brought nothing into this world, and we take nothing out". A bell tolls through the opening bars of John Joubert's An English Requiem and muted strings sigh like autumn rain. As a meditation on last things from such a life-affirming composer, it seems at first almost too bleak. But the horn that calls hauntingly in the middle-distance of those first phrases recurs in later movements; there's a journey under way here. Shadows lengthen across every movement of this intensely beautiful work, but Joubert's message, expressed through the tension between his richly poetic music and the penny-plain English of the New Revised Standard Version, is nonetheless one of comfort. Joubert died in January this year, and this performance was always likely to be a poignant occasion. Adrian Partington (who conducted the premiere here in Gloucest

Verdi Requiem at the Three Choirs Festival

EDWARD GARDNER PRESIDES OVER A DRAMATIC VERDI REQUIEM VERDI REQUIEM Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral ***** Edward Gardner has known Gloucester Cathedral intimately since he was admitted into the choir there as a seven-year-old chorister. Over the years this increasingly world-renowned conductor has returned to his musical birthplace to direct memorable performances at the Three Choirs Festival. Three years ago it was the Berlioz Requiem, and three years on it was another Requiem, that by Verdi, which left us stunned this time. So much at home with the acoustic here, Gardner can judge its reverberations to the micro-second, and accordingly he was able in this reading to give all the composer's many pauses their true dramatic emphasis. And, as one of this country's great operatic conductors, he found all the Requiem's stylistic links with the near-contemporaneous Aida. And how he persuaded the Philharmonia to playing of supple flexibility and wa

CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy review

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE IS KNOCKED OUT BY THE PROWESS OF THE CBSO YOUTH ORCHESTRA ACADEMY UNDER MICHAEL SEAL CBSO YOUTH ORCHESTRA ACADEMY Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★★ A great start to the concert with a devilishly fine performance of the overture to Weber's opera Der Freischutz. The thumbnail pictures of the opera's characters, from satanic Samiel to winsome heroine Agathe, are skilfully woven into the musical fabric making for an exciting ten minutes. The players captured the rapid changes of mood really well – the horn section as the embodiment of rustic values, the piping vernal woodwind and unnerving shivering strings. There are also plenty of those slippery diminished seventh chords in Dvořák's Symphony No.7 where a composer loved for his sunny and ingratiating Bohemian melodies shows a darker side. Under the CBSO's associate conductor Michael Seal this was a performance which scrupulously maintained the tension between the symphony's brooding crepuscula

What has happened to Birmingham?

HOW DO WE GET INTO THE CULTURAL HEART OF BIRMINGHAM? THE COLLAPSE OF BIRMINGHAM Birmingham is working very hard in succeeding to make its cultural centre a no-go area. For many months the access to Symphony Hall, the Central Library, the Repertory Theatre and the Town Hall has been forbidding. How to locate the bus stops and the taxi ranks has been off-putting enough. Now we are chirpily advised of a diversion to pedestrian access to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which will only take a few extra minutes. I'm sure the elderly and infirm (among which I include myself), and those dependent upon wheelchairs will take comfort from that advice. Heaven knows what all this is for. Victoria Square was beautifully clear for a life-enhancing Indian festival last Sunday. Centenary Square is now open, with a rubbish design and layout which cannot attempt even to touch the sandal-latchets of the original paving-tiles and the amazing Forward sculpture; what happened to all th

Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis

GERMAN ROMANTIC LIEDER AT THEIR BEST MARK PADMORE AND PAUL LEWIS Birmingham Town Hall **** So many insights were revealed in this enthralling recital performed by two of the most popular British artists on the concert-platform, not least in Mahler's five Ruckert-Lieder given in their original voice and piano scoring. As Mark Padmore pointed out, in their orchestral version we normally hear them sung by mezzo or baritone, but here was an opportunity to hear them with the nuances of a tenor voice. Everything came across as far more intimate and spontaneous than it possibly could with a large symphony orchestra and conductor, with Paul Lewis' piano contributions now delicate, now busy, and coping with all the often unidiomatic aspects of Mahler's idiosyncratic keyboard-writing as he matched Padmore's visionary growth in intensity towards the end of Um Mitternacht. After this "Ich bin der Welt abhanden Gekommen" came as resigned solace, Padmore's

Britten/Purcell and David Matthews CDs reviewed

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVELS IN NEW BRITTEN AND DAVID MATTHEWS RECORDINGS BRITTEN / PURCELL: Doric Quartet (Chandos 2CDs CHAN 20124-2) ★★★★★ Britten's three string quartets are just too long to squeeze onto a single CD so here a second disc accommodates the composer's youthful Three Divertimenti. It can only have been musical snobbery that produced the scathing response at their premiere in 1936; the Dorics bring out their charm and insouciance quite engagingly. They also include three Fantasias in Four Parts by Purcell whose music influenced Britten. His Second Quartet marked the 250th anniversary of Purcell's birth, while the Third Quartet's finale used the passacaglia form integral to the 17th century composer's music. The Doric Quartet's playing is superb throughout whether conveying the tender melancholy of the First Quartet's Andante calmo, with expressive playing from first violin Alex Redington, to the often acerbic and thorny Third Quartet. The

Don Giovanni at Longborough Festival Opera

DON GIOVANNI Longborough Festival Opera **** Alongside its painstakingly-built proud Wagner tradition, Longborough Festival Opera has also created itself a name for inventive Mozart production, and Martin Constantine's new staging of Don Giovanni provides an interesting, if not always totally successful addition to the tally. We are in a gentlemen's health club, where the members sport various bats (instruments of violence when necessary) and treat the female staff as commodities of every nature. Will Holt's design is basically the back wall of a locker-room, complete with urinal (the comic value of that is minimal), the cupboard doors providing resourceful windows, exits and entrances, and the gentlemen sport white towelling robes over white singlets and boxer-shorts, varied only by gold lame briefs for formal wear. The visual impact is dull. Constantine brings some arresting insights into this scenario, including Don Giovanni's lavish ball portrayed as an orgy

The Mozartists at Lichfield Cathedral

RICHARD BRATBY HEARS THEATRICALITY AND FLAIR FROM THE MOZARTISTS IN LICHFIELD THE MOZARTISTS Lichfield Cathedral ***** Lichfield Festival has not always been lucky in its choice of visiting ensembles, but The Mozartists always looked like a good bet, and so they proved. Right now, this London-based period instrument orchestra is pretty much exactly where the action's at: a full, red-blooded ensemble sound, characterful, virtuosic wind and brass playing, and – under the direction of their founder Ian Page - performances that simply brim over with theatricality and flair. But then, with programmes as appealing as this, why wouldn't they? Inspired by Mozart's youthful travels, the concert was bookended in typical eighteenth century style by a pair of early Mozart symphonies. In between came a triple helping of solo deliciousness. Oliver Wass played the harp and Katy Bircher the flute in Mozart's Concerto K.299, conducting a conversation of exquisite brightne

CBSO at the Cheltenham Festival

THEA MUSGRAVE'S NEW TRUMPET CONCERTO IS A VALUABLE ADDITION TO THE REPERTOIRE CBSO Cheltenham Town Hall ***** The five fingers of one hand are probably more than enough to number the truly great trumpet concertos in the repertoire, but after Saturday's premiere of the new Trumpet Concerto by Thea Musgrave we certainly need another digit. Commissioned jointly by the CBSO (who gave this first performance) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and dedicated to Alison Balsom, Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival of which this concert was a vibrant highlight, the only factor that might preclude frequent hearings of the piece is its scoring for a large percussion section, three players needed to deploy a cornucopia of instruments. Combined with an otherwise modest orchestra they provide a kaleidoscope of colours with which the music responds to a series of tree- paintings by Victoria Crowe, burgeoning with vitality even at moments of stasis. Balsom&

Berlioz and Donizetti CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS CDS OF WELL-KNOWN BERLIOZ AND RARE DONIZETTI BERLIOZ: Toronto Symphony Orchestra / Davis (Chandos CD / SACD CHSA 5239) ★★★ This disc begins with a vibrant performance of Berlioz's Fantasy on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Berlioz's penchant for ear-tickling sonorities is evident as the excellent Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, as a chorus of spirits bidding Miranda farewell and threatening Caliban, waft their song over a tinkling piano played four hands. Under Sir Andrew Davis the fifteen minute work sparkles with youthful verve. Berlioz re-used the piece as the finale for Lelio, a sequel in which the hero of the Symphonie Fantastique returns to life. I wish we'd had a complete Lelio instead of this disappointingly routine reading of the symphony. The opening lacks fantasy, the hero mildly miffed not wildly distrait – whereas Chung (with the Bastille Opera Orchestra on DG) finds edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown intensity. What happened to Chandos

Birmingham International Piano Competition review

RICHARD BRATBY IS KNOCKED OUT BY THE SAMUEL BARBER PIANO SONATA BIRMINGHAM INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION FINAL Birmingham Town Hall **** It was impossible to envy the jury of the 2019 Birmingham International Piano Competition. Between the three finalists, each playing a 40-minute mini-recital of three pieces, the most imposing single performance - by a mile - was Karnsiri Laothamatas's closing account of Samuel Barber's 1949 Piano Sonata. It's a bruiser of a piece, but she had it under absolute control: walls of steel-grey tone lit by distant flashes of lightning, transparent pools of eerie calm, and a final fugue handled with the formal command and muscular power of a Soviet ballet dancer. The audience seemed slightly shell-shocked. But this was a competition, after all; and so this had to be set against Laothamatas's slick but unengaging and occasionally shaky performances of Scarlatti and Scriabin. And how do you begin to measure that against the