Showing posts from November, 2019

Kidderminster Dream of Gerontius review

TEARS STILL IN THE EYES AFTER KIDDERMINSTER'S GERONTIUS DREAM OF GERONTIUS Kidderminster Choral Society at Kidderminster Town Hall ***** My eyes are still moist after one of the most moving of the many performances of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius I have heard over half a century. Perhaps Kidderminster Choral Society were on their toes because of their close links with the composer all those decades ago, but I don't think so. They were on their mettle because conductor Geoffrey Weaver always prepares them assiduously so that on concert night his assured, persuasive conducting can bring forth the fruits of thorough rehearsal. Diction, as always, was clear, and there was an intelligently nuanced response to St John Henry Newman's deeply spiritual text. Harmonies were confidently shaped even when unaccompanied, and if there was the occasional stray thinness of tone (I was aware of at least one chorus member doggedly holding their score too high in front of their

CBSO Struass review

A WONDERFUL STRAUSS RARITY CBSO Symphony Hall **** This was a delightfully domestic programme from the CBSO; It's just a pity more people weren't at home to hear it. Do they only turn out for blockbusters? Aren't Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven attractive enough? And Richard Strauss? It was a treat to hear his rarely-performed Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon, strings and harp, a very late work, autumnal in the manner of the contemporaneous Oboe Concerto, and a work which somehow also combines the worlds of the early tone-poems and the composer's operatic ensembles. CBSO principals Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques were the soloists, and what a joy this collaboration was. Janes' clarinet tones were gloriously limpid, harking back to late Brahms (and why not?), Henriques' bassoon was eloquently characterised, both noble and agile. Under conductor Riccardo Minasi the CBSO accompanied their colleagues generously and enthusiastically, and alon

Hellensmusic review

MUSIC NOT QUITE HAUNTING AT A HAUNTED HOUSE ELISABETH ZEUTHEN SCHNEIDER AND WILLIAM HOWARD Great Barn, Hellens Manor, Much Marcle *** Some say it's haunted, but the medieval manor house at Hellens in Much Marcle, tucked away in a landscape between the Malvern Hills and the river Wye, has for several years been the location for an inspiring springtime festival, Hellensmusic, with a strong educational outreach. Now its visionary owner Adam Munthe is expanding his property's offer to a series of concerts throughout the year, beginning this season with "Music from the Soil", a recital from violinist Elisabeth Zeuthen Schneider and pianist William Howard bringing the stamp of nationalistic folk-music to their programme. It was difficult follow the thread at times. Beethoven certainly brought a folky feel occasionally into his music (as in the "Peasants' Merrymaking", a Breughel-like interlude in his Pastoral Symphony), but surely one can receive h

Mark Bebbington Bromsgrove review

A THOUGHTFUL, ENGROSSING RECITAL FROM MARK BEBBINGTON MARK BEBBINGTON Artrix, Bromsgrove ***** The silence of the Bromsgrove Concerts audience at Mark Bebbington's skilfully-programmed all-Gallic recital was deafening, this most thoughtful of pianists drawing the listeners into the circle of concentration with which he surrounded most of his performances throughout an enthralling evening. Slightly less than engaging was the Faure D-flat Nocturne with which he opened, somewhat detached, but always with an imaginative command of keyboard timbres, from primary colours in the bass to the pastel tones at the very top of this magnificent Steinway instrument. But then, following on immediately, came the intellectual and emotional grandeur (never mind the searching Lisztian technique) of Cesar Franck's (okay, he was born in Belgium but France adopted him) Prelude, Choral et Fugue. Bebbington's response to this awe-inspiring work was thoughtful and engrossing, building

CBSO Beethoven and Stravinsky review

A PETRUSHKA OF GLITTERING CLARITY BEETHOVEN AND STRAVINSKY CBSO at Symphony Hall ***** It's said you can often tell who is conducting from the nature of the sound they draw from an orchestra. But what happens when their sound has multiple personalities, as revealed in this polarised programme (Beethoven and Stravinsky) under the young Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno? The sheer weight of tone he produced from the CBSO at the start of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was breathtakingly arresting, each chord attacked with the depth of an excavator, leading into an allegro irresistible in its forward momentum, unleashing energetic reserves of power, and ending in a coda where timpani thrilled and horns blazed. More Beethoven followed, bringing more minor-key solemnity, Jeremy Denk the soloist in the Third Piano Concerto. Gimeno's opening tutti was both sombre and athletic, Denk's entry bringing a warmly-balanced piano tone and a sure sense of organic flow, culmin

Brahms Symphonies (Gardner) and Bruckner 6 (Rattle) CD reviews

NEW BRAHMS AND BRUCKNER RELEASES IMPRESS NORMAN STINCHCOMBE BRAHMS, SYMPHONIES 1 & 3: Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos CD/SACD CHSA 5236) ★★★★ It's not faint praise to say that Gardner steers a middle path between extremes of Brahms' symphony conducting. The rugged granitic approach of Klemperer, the geniality of Walter and the sleek dynamism of Karajan still have a lot to offer – but with reservations. Klemperer's tempos can be ponderous while Walter and Karajan omitted first movement exposition repeats. Gardner rightly observes both, giving structural weight and solidity, but his flowing tempi ensure that the music never drags. Flowing but not hectic, which is how Gardiner and Norrington, using period instruments, can sometimes be. The Bergen orchestra's playing has a warm burnished sound enhanced by their hall's excellent acoustics and the Chandos engineer's spacious sound – perhaps a mite too distant for some tastes. Gardne

Orchestra of the Swan review

THIS PASTORAL SYMPHONY IS A HIGHLIGHT OF CHRISTOPHER MORLEY'S REVIEWING YEAR ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN Stratford Play House ***** You'd be hard pressed to find a happier bunch of musicians than Stratford's Orchestra of the Swan. They play with a smile which spreads throughout their performances, and Tuesday's concert positively beamed. Daniele Rosina was the conductor, his confident geniality and clarity of beat drawing oodles of goodwill from these remarkable players, beginning with a Haydn Symphony no.88 which combined both elegance and energy. Never mind the venue's boxy acoustic, such was the orchestra's projection under Rosina that we appreciated every neatly-turned phrase and apt accentuations, and the empathetic interplay between woodwinds and strings. Music for Sunflowers by Joe Cutler, head of composition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, is an absolutely gorgeous piece, and this was shamefully only its second hearing since its premiere

Awards for Young Musicians day at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

A HEARTWARMING AFTERNOON WITH YOUNGSTERS AT ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRE AWARDS FOR YOUNG MUSICIANS by Christopher Morley Picture the scene on the stage of the august Bradshaw Hall at the heart of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. In one corner a teenage boy is tinkling lovingly through the Grieg Piano Concerto; in another a youthful percussionist is rattling expertly through the xylophone variation of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; in another, two lads are heading balloons towards each other. One of them bursts, to great glee. More about the balloons later, but let's explain the context. This was the mid-afternoon break in an intensive day of activities presented by the Awards for Young Musicians Trust, its 12th annual awards day since its founding 20 years ago on the legacy of the musical instrument collector Robert Lewin. Nowadays the generous sources of the various awards are many and varied, and one of them is particularly

Solihull Choral Society review

MAGGIE COTTON ENJOYS A CHALLENGING PROGRAMME FROM SCS SOLIHULL CHORAL SOCIETY Solihull School ***** A challenging programme conducted throughout by Oliver Walker, an artist of many talents. Also an organist and adjudicator, he supports and encourages Choral Music in the UK, tours abroad and inspires youngsters to sing throughout the country at many schools. Threads of harpsichord backed Handel's 'Esther Overture', played by a vibrato-free Sinfonia of Birmingham. Stalwarts all. Smiling Vivaldi's 'Gloria' captures life's ups and downs with carefully contrasted solo voices - Milly Forrest – Soprano; Emily Sierra Mezzo- Soprano. Women's voices in the chorus certainly out-numbered the men, however the well-crafted baroque balance was maintained throughout the evening much to the delight of a near- capacity audience in Solihull School's magnificent Chapel. Haydn's 'Nelson Mass' (1798) is probably named after triumph at the Battle

Birmingham Bach Choir centenary concert review

YOUNG IN SPIRIT AT 100 YEARS OLD BIRMINGHAM BACH CHOIR CENTENARY GALA CONCERT Lichfield Cathedral **** Musical centenaries are in the air: still who'd have guessed that the Birmingham Bach Choir was due a telegram from the Queen? As well as being consistently excellent in performance, it's always seemed so young in spirit. That was certainly the impression that came across at this Centenary Gala Concert, conducted by the Bach Choir's long-serving chief conductor Paul Spicer at Lichfield Cathedral. Bach is de rigeur on such an occasion, and with The Musical and Amicable Society providing spirited period-instrument support, they opened with a performance of the motet Singet dem Herrn, which, despite buoyant direction from Spicer, sounded very slightly like a warm-up. By the second item – Handel's Dixit Dominus – textures had cleared. The altos and tenors seemed to have found their centre and Handel's grand gestures really rang out: brisk, brilliant a

CBSO review 13.11.19

POST-COLONIAL ANGER AT THE CBSO CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ Nostalgia, anti-colonial anger, maternal tenderness and the unbuttoned joy of dance – Xavier Montsalvatge's 5 Canciones negras packs a lot into its twelve minutes. The Spanish mezzo-soprano Clara Mouriz sang three of the Catalan composer's "Five Negro Songs" on Radio Three last week in their original 1945 form with piano accompaniment. Here in the composer's later orchestral version her vivacity, exuberance and ability to bring the poetry's vivid scenes to life with vocal colouring was thrilling. There are gains and losses between the two versions. In Cuba in a piano the singer rails against the Americanization of post-war Cuba, when "Si" was replaced by "Yes", the last word of the song flung out defiantly by Mouriz, was much more biting with just the piano. But the orchestral Habanera was gorgeously sultry and Mouriz's lullaby, with muted orchestra throbbing away like a m

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir review

A GRIPPING WORLD PREMIERE FROM LIZ JOHNSON ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRE CHAMBER CHOIR Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ***** The links between Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and the world-renowned Ex Cathedra are strong and rewarding, and the connection is Jeffrey Skidmore, artistic director of the latter and inspiring coach at the former. As he explained before the concert began, several of the singers in the RBC Chamber Choir are members of Ex Cathedra, and Lucy Russell leads both the RBC Baroque Orchestra and the Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra. But what he was too modest to point out, and it takes this review to attest it, this concert was also a prime example of how seamless and well-judged is Skidmore's programme-planning, subtle links underpinning every element. There was an Advent theme underlying all these offerings flowing one into the other (blessedly, no interval), an expectant plainchant leading into Bach's cantata Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, with late

Cosi fan Tutte review

ZESTFUL AND WITTY MOZART COSI FAN TUTTE Classical Opera & The Mozartists at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★★ No director's fatuous concepts to endure or intrude between audience and performers in this zestful and witty concert performance. Even with conductor Ian Page using only a modest chamber orchestra, plus continuo harpsichord, the singers' movements were severely restricted on the Town Hall's small stage. The singers rose to the challenge – every nuance of inflexion, vocal colouring and minute physical gesture gained added significance. Rebecca Bottone's show-stealing Despina exemplified this. Just two sets of comic spectacles were needed for her doctor and notary impersonations, the voice and a delightfully mobile face – minx, mischief maker and hard-bitten realist by turn – did all the rest. Martha Jones (Dorabella) gave a winningly sung and wryly comic È amore un ladroncello and since she was a late replacement for the indisposed Emily Edmonds, the cru

Solihull Choral Society

A LOVELY CHORAL SOCIETY CONTRIBUTING SO MUCH TO ITS TOWN SOLIHULL CHORAL SOCIETY by Christopher Morley (for 14.11.19) "Raising voices, lifting hearts" is the motto of the Solihull Choral Society, whose next programme, (November 16) featuring the Vivaldi Gloria and Haydn's "Nelson" Mass, is surely destined to achieve those aims. "This little choir has been established in the area for many years and is a bit of the backbone in Solihull," says enthusiastic soprano Elissa Renouf. "Solihull Choral Society started out as the Margaret Wharam Choir and she was well known and respected in Solihull." (This writer remembers several concerts conducted by that formidable lady, wielding her baton like a rod of iron and obtaining amazing results). "We have always supported local musicians and some of those have been young school and college students. The choir has a bursary scheme to encourage young people to sing with us and man

WNO Carmen review

MORE COLOUR NEEDED IN THIS CARMEN CARMEN Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome *** An enthusiastic large audience greeted 'curtain up' with some scepticism at the sight of the curious set. Cigarette factory . . . ?? More like a prison with the gun-toting armed guards, drab colours, worryingly unsteady massive moveable wire netting screens (building site leftovers perchance?) fronting drab open-fronted ceiling-height living spaces . . . dimly lit apartments maybe? Oh, and intermittent search lights. Sung in French, but with added neck-breaking English surtitles high above the stage. Frenetic conductor Czech Tomas Hanus - three years with WNO – urged over-the-top efforts from the stage, notably male soloists delivering ear splitting top notes to a somewhat bludgeoned audience. There are countless interpretations off this involved, exciting, three and a half hour Bizet opera, which from the very first performance in 1875 is a familiar favourite to this day. Howe

WNO Cunning Little Vixen review

CLASSIC JANACEK PRODUCTION NEEDS MORE CARE THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome *** "That wasn't me" chirrups a frog, at the end of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen. "That was my grandfather". We're reaching the point where audiences at Welsh National Opera's 39-year old production will be able to say the same thing. That's no criticism: David Pountney's cushiony slice of Czech countryside and the touches of magic that bring it to life – umbrellas opening into spring flowers; the birds suspended in their rocking chairs; the snow visibly melting – are as fresh as ever. It's still hard to imagine a more perfect visualisation of Janáček's miraculous little hymn to life. And under Tomáš Hanus's musical direction, it polished up a treat. Hanus's bold, primary coloured strokes created a vivid setting for a delightfully no-nonsense cast. Hats off, as ever, to the chickens (Michael Clift

Freddy Kempf plays Chopin at the Barber Institute

A WELL-BALANCED CHOPIN RECITAL FROM FREDDY KEMPF Freddy Kempf Barber Concert Hall **** Pity the pianist giving a single Chopin recital. All those Nocturnes, Preludes, Études and Mazurkas et al offer enough material to fill a whole series of concerts; so what do you choose? Instead of offering a mixed assortment for his Birmingham International Piano Festival appearance Freddy Kempf gave us balanced halves, each with a Ballade, Scherzo, Nocturne and Polonaise that roughly reflected Chopin's early and late periods. On paper it looked very musicianly (opportunities to compare and contrast musical forms, the composer's development - great for a predominantly university audience) and, if nothing else, showed that Kempf is as much a thoughtful programme-planner as he is virtuoso performer. For this listener, though, subtleties of Chopin's style were less apparent than Kempf's technical prowess, and his ability to create poetry from simple lines and tame textural

CBSO Elijah review

I WANT A TARDIS SO I CAN REVIEW ELIJAH'S PREMIERE! ELIJAH CBSO at Symphony Hall ***** Birmingham owns Mendelssohn's Elijah. The oratorio, one of the undoubted choral masterpieces of the 19th century, was premiered at the Town Hall under the composer's direction in 1846, and ever since that triumph both the city and the work have been synonymous with each other. And no time more so than at the present. Last week the CBSO Chorus received an immense ovation when they performed it in Monaco with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra under its principal conductor Kazuki Yamada. Yamada is also principal guest conductor of the CBSO, to whom he brought the Chorus back home last night for a truly tremendous account of the work (never mind the fact that we over-ran 20 minutes more than the advertised length, this was bliss). His conducting persuasive, supple, elegant and expansive, Yamada secured a reading which was at once dramatically paced and richly reflective. Ju

WNO Rigoletto review

RIGOLETTO IN THE WHITE HOUSE RIGOLETTO Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★★ Fine singing and playing rescued Verdi's music from an invidiously updated production – set in the White House in the early 1960s. The young Korean soprano Haegee Lee, in ankle socks and pleated skirt, was a believably sheltered girl but one who, in Gilda's aria Caro nome, eloquently expressed all her suppressed passion and yearning. A very light, flexible voice, never shrill, and with well articulated coloratura. As the object of her romantic dreams David Junghoon Kim's Duke demonstrated a robust Italianate tenor and delivered a nicely insouciant La donna è mobile. Mark S. Doss's Rigoletto – part jester, part pander in his loud check jacket and co-respondent's shoes – was once a bel canto baritone but now has the weight of voice, and cutting edge, to do justice to this demanding role. His outrage in the denunciatory Cortigiani, vil razza dannata was thunderous,the reac

Coates and Rattle/Kozena CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE ENJOYS JOHN WILSON'S NEW ERIC COATES CD AND AN EVENING AT HOME WITH SIR SIMON AND LADY RATTLE ERIC COATES ORCHESTRAL WORKS VOL. 1: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Wilson (Chandos CHAN 20036) ★★★★ There's more to Eric Coates than By the Sleepy Lagoon, famous as the theme for the BBC's long-running Desert Island Discs. Try, for examples, The Jester at the Wedding Suite. With John Wilson's persuasive shaping of the music and the orchestra's zestful playing these skilfully crafted character pieces recall Tchaikovsky's ballet music in their tunefulness and easy grace. The Two Symphonic Rhapsodies show Coates' ability to capture mood and atmosphere with economy of gesture – like vintage film music. Wilson began recording Coates in the 1990s, for the now defunct ASV label, and knows how to get the best from this charming, tuneful and skilfully crafted repertoire, from the dreamy Ballad for String Orchestra to the perky London Suite with its

The Intelligence Park (Music Theatre Wales) review

AN EXTREMELY SOPHISTICATED WASTE OF TIME THE INTELLIGENCE PARK Music Theatre Wales at Birmingham Repertory Theatre *** "It's just rubbish – utter rubbish" declared a gentleman sitting near me at the end of Act One of Gerald Barry's 1990 opera The Intelligence Park. I'm sure he didn't mean it. The setting is Dublin, 1753, and the composer Paradies (Michel de Souza) is struggling to write an opera while his reluctant fiancée Jerusha (Rhian Lois) has eloped with his primo uomo, Serafino (Patrick Terry). Serafino is a castrato: we know, because we've seen him getting the snip, live on stage. And we know the rest because Act One ends with Jerusha and Serafino getting comprehensively jiggy with it in anatomically-correct nude bodystockings, while Barry's score ascends new heights of squealing, jerking hilarity. All great fun, and director Nigel Lowery's cheerful designs are probably the most uncomplicatedly enjoyable aspect of the show: a

Christopher Morley's Golden Anniversary as a music critic

RICHARD BRATBY CHRONICLES CHRISTOPHER MORLEY'S HALF-CENTURY AS A MUSIC CRITIC CHRISTOPHER MORLEY'S HALF-CENTURY Picture Birmingham in 1969. It's a city of blue-and-cream buses. The Victorian Central Library is still open, but the Rotunda is brand-new and out at Gravelly Hill the first pillars of Spaghetti Junction are just starting to rise. That's the world in which the Birmingham Post's chief music critic Christopher Morley filed his first classical music review. Now, as Christopher celebrates his fiftieth year reporting on the Midlands music scene for the Post, it seems astonishingly distant. To put it another way, when the CBSO celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, he will have been reporting on the orchestra for more than half its entire existence. "I hadn't realised that!" says Christopher "But yes, 50 years is a long time to observe things". The fact is that – talking to him, or reading the thousands of articles in

CBSO Youth Orchestra review

BRIGHT-EYED, BUSHY-TAILED AND BRISTLING CBSO YOUTH ORCHESTRA CBSO Youth Orchestra Symphony Hall ***** There could have been no better programme for the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and bristling young musicians of the CBSO Youth Orchestra: two iconoclastic works from daring Russian composers, and both premiered in the same year, 1913. The players had been well coached by expert CBSO tutors during an intensive week of preparation, and assiduously rehearsed under the baton of CBSOYO guru Michael Seal. Everything came to fruition this exhilarating Sunday afternoon, Andrew Gourlay now on the podium, and the youngsters presenting a gratifyingly professional platform-manner (actually , professionalism untainted by the "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" syndrome -- a tired attitude the parent orchestra never affects, either). Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto was the work with which Birmingham-based Lauren Zhang won the 2018 BBC Young Musician competition. He