Showing posts from January, 2020

CBSO Beethoven and Unsuk Chin review

THE CBSO MIX THE OLD AND THE VERY NEW CBSO Symphony Hall ***** Beethoven would have so loved this concert, combining his own compositions with a work by one of the most fascinating of today's composers, and a showcase as well for a composer of the younger generation. This was a celebration of both the forthcoming centenary of the CBSO's birth and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's, and the programme drew an encouragingly packed house. Perhaps most had come for the two Beethoven symphonies, but perhaps some too for the UK premiere of Unsuk Chin's SPIRA - A Concerto for Orchestra, a CBSO Centenary Commission supported generously by the British Korean Society. Chin here writes for a large orchestra, not least with a busy percussion section, in which two vibraphones, separated by some distance (I wonder if this will be apparent in the forthcoming BBC Radio 3 broadcast?) and activated by slithering violin bows, punctuate almost vocally every contortion of

New CDs of Reger and Tchaikovsky reviewed

REGER IS A REVELATION REGER: Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt / Levin (Naxos 8.574074) ★★★★ Max Reger's reputation is for academically sound but dull music. His Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, inspired by the Swiss artist's paintings, show him in a different light – romantic, colourful and lively. The Isle of the Dead is sombre and eerie but is interestingly different to Rachmaninov's famous version, while The Play of the Waves (featured on the booklet cover) and Bacchanal are vivid scherzos. The Hermit Fiddler is a serenely mystical piece and I found orchestra leader Klaudyna Schulze-Broniewska's approach, austere and withdrawn, a better fit than Jap van Sweden's fulsome vibrato-heavy style on Neeme Jarvi's Chandos (deleted) Concertgebouw recording. The orchestra, recorded in a lively acoustic, are very accomplished and conductor Ira Levin's orchestral arrangement of Reger's piano work Variations and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach is a

Orchestre National de Lille review

BEETHOVEN GATECRASHES RAVEL AND DEBUSSY Orchestre National de Lille Symphony Hall **** Perhaps it was the ongoing logistical difficulties of getting into and out of the Broad Street area (and whatever was going off on the outbound Hagley Road afterwards, don't ask) which made the audience for this concert embarrassingly small, when Birmingham was entertaining a large business and press contingent from France, or was it a case of under-publicisation? Whatever, the Orchestra National de Lille made heroic efforts, playing with an elegance and generosity of spirit which deserved better. Their programme was a strange one: three fin-de-siecle French masterpieces gate-crashed by Beethoven's most poetic piano concerto -- and it was the Beethoven which came off best, of which more later. Alexandre Bloch was the conductor, under-characterising Ravel's Mother Goose Suite (we could have done with more coarseness from the Beast's contrabassoon in colloquy with the Bea

Iceland Symphony Orchestra preview

FIRST-EVER VISIT FROM THE ICELAND SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA ICELAND SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA by Christopher Morley Celebrating its 70th anniversary year, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra is soon to be making its first-ever tour to the UK, and Birmingham's Symphony Hall is an obvious stop on the eight-concert, nine-day itinerary. Yan Pascal Tortelier is on the podium, returning to the orchestra of which he was chief conductor between 2016 and 2019, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Both have fond memories of previous visits to Birmingham. Jean-Efflam will be performing the Ravel, so demanding both technically and intellectually, several times on the tour. How does he feel about that? "I hope my right hand will still be in shape to play afterwards!" he jokes. "This concerto is one of my numerous favourites. As in all masterpieces, the message and the way it is conveyed are fascinating at every encounter and the mar

Ex Cathedra/CBSO Missa Solemnis review

BEETHOVEN IN THE WRONG HALL BEETHOVEN MISSA SOLEMNIS Ex Cathedra / CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★ Performing this work just a week after the CBSO's stupendous Mahler's eighth symphony was a gamble. With those massive hall-filling forces still in the mind's eye the sight of a slimmed-down orchestra (just two double basses) and single choir on the platform was a shock. Such comparisons are invidious, after all Beethoven didn't compose a Mass of a Thousand, but surely it would have suited the scale, and style of this performance to have used the Town Hall instead. Ex Cathedra is celebrating its 50th anniversary and there was, as always, much to admire here under founder and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore. In his programme notes he wrote: "the music is awe-inspiring but we shouldn't be overawed." It's a compliment, albeit a back-handed one, to say that we weren't. The triple forte and the trombone entry at "omnipotens" sounded muted and th

Kimichi Symphony Orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky

KIMICHI TRIUMPHS AGAIN IN STRAVINSKY BALLET KIMICHI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Elgar Hall, University of Birmingham **** An enthusiastic but half empty house greeted the massive symphony orchestra on stage, conducted by Keith Slade Just two pieces for an imaginative evening, challenges for instrumentalists of all ages with dancers truly highlighting the second half for Stravinsky's magical Firebird ballet. Rimsky-Korsakov's colourful Scheherazade began with a fine hair-raising brass fanfare leading to lovely solo horn (after nerves settled). Altogether the familiar show piece we have come to expect – although more overt passion would have helped from certain telling solo strands (i.e. leader Charlotte Moseley). Only one double bass was visible – the other five were totally hidden by a thick curtain. Disappointing balance from such as percussion at the very back. GO FOR IT, but match with sensitive discretion too! A very demanding work for all concerned. A magical atmosphere fo

English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

KENNETH WOODS, THE ENGLISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND ISATA KANNEH-MASON by Christopher Morley The Worcestershire-based English Symphony Orchestra is launching its 2020 activities in impressive style, establishing a new residency in Bromsgrove and giving us a taster of what might become a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies in this, the 250th anniversary year of the composer's birth. ESO's next concert venues are the newly-refurbished Routh Hall at Bromsgrove School, and the gracious Shirehall in Hereford, location in the past for the secular concerts of the Three Choirs Festival in the city. "We're performing Beethoven's 3Third Piano Concerto with Isata Kanneh-Mason," ESO conductor Kenneth Woods tells me. "The Bromsgrove concert (31 Jan) also includes Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (all part of our LvB 250 celebrations) and Ruth Gipps' Cringlemaire Garden. The next day in Hereford we sandwich the Concerto with Beethoven 8 and Mend

CBSO 22.1.20 review

A CBSO AT THE TOP OF ITS FORM CBSO at Symphony Hall ***** CBSO, Kazuki Yamada, Francesco Piemontesi The CBSO's season continued with two blockbuster works, and memorably vivid performances to match. This was an enormously satisfying and exciting evening with a virtuoso orchestra, conductor and soloist. Brahms 2nd piano concerto is known to all of us. For many of us it has been part of our listening experience since our early years, and we file it away in our mental filing cabinets, along with our opinions of it, and imagine that we know it. But live performances of this vast piece make us experience afresh its enormous scale and ambition, and delight again in its variety of orchestral and chamber textures. This performance with the young Swiss Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi was so wonderfully alive and in the present that it made me realise that my memories of the piece were less than half of the story. One of Kazuki Yamada's gifts is the clarity with

Orchestra of the Swan Sibelius review

RARE SIBELIUS IN STRATFORD ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN Stratford Play House **** Under David Le Page's artistic direction the Orchestra of the Swan is exploring increasingly imaginative programming. A couple of years ago it would have been difficult to envisage an all-Sibelius evening such as this one, particularly with most of the offerings little-known rarities, but here it almost entirely worked. My only reservation was that the programme was perhaps too generous, limiting the rehearsal time devoted to each piece. Were this the case, it certainly didn't show in these fresh, generous performances given to a packed house. We began on familiar ground with the Swan of Tuonela, conductor Tom Hammond setting a veiled, atmospheric scene for Louise Braithwaite's plangent, otherworldly and beautifully sustained cor anglais solo. Nick Stringfellow collaborated with poignant cello interjections. Throughout the concert we discerned how much Sibelius applied his timbres like

Julian Lloyd Webber's fears he may have to resign from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVAYOIRE IN DANGER OF LOSING ITS SUPERSTAR FIGUREHEAD JULIAN LLOYD WEBBER AND ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRE FUNDING by Christopher Morley Just before Christmas I had lunch with Julian Lloyd Webber at the excellent San Carlo restaurant at the top of Temple Street, and in a low voice beneath the acoustic bustle of excited, festive patrons, he confided to me his fears about the future of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, of which he is Principal. "We're getting no funding, compared with the London institutions, as we are considered a component within a university. And Birmingham City University can't give us what we need for the upkeep of these state-of-the art facilities. "I'm not prepared to preside over the decline of everything we've built up." I was shocked, saddened, but determined to preserve these confidences. Now Julian has gone public, firstly on the Slipped Disc website checked throughout the world (and one w

Eroica Camerata review

POIGNANCY, ORIGINALITY AND CHARM WINTER DREAMS Eroica Camerata at St Niholas Church, Kings Norton **** A suitably crisp winter evening greeted conductor Peter Marks and the 51 piece Eroica Camerata orchestra in the splendid space of Kings Norton's fine St Nicholas church. Pleasing wood-wind blends opened Tchaikovsky's familiar Romeo and Juliet overture soon building up with suitably dramatic sweeping strings and subtle inclusion of a well- balanced gentle harp. It is understandable why Berlioz's Les Nuits D' Ete (originally intended with piano accompaniment) is rarely performed. Intended for various voice types, however, his modest and somewhat long-winded pioneering work verges on tedious and boring. Not helped by soprano soloist, Miriam Ridgway, worryingly insecure of tuning in top registers therefore not easy to match the copious programme notes including texts for the concentrating listeners. Notable inclusions . . . particularly the horn section,

CBSO Mahler 8 review

CBSO'S MAHLER GIVES NORMAN STINCHCOMBE A MARVELLOUS MUSICAL HUG MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 8 CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Mahler's famous riposte to Sibelius that, "the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!" was embodied in this exuberant all-embracing Symphony of a Thousand. From the thunderous opening Veni, Creator Spiritus to the ecstatic closing mystical chorus this performance gripped us in a marvellous musical hug. With the massed choral forces in front and in the right and left circles we were enveloped in sound, in sympathy with every swoop and swirl of this epic musical journey. The symphony's second part, inspired by Goethe's Faust, moves into an imaginative landscape of abysses and mountain ranges which the choirs and soloists conjured into life. With Morris Robinson's rock steady bass as its foundation, up through the heights of baritone Roland Wood and mezzos Karen Cargill and Alice Coote to the shimmering soprano pin

Elin Thomas and the Armonico Consort

FROM MEGHAN AND HARRY, VIA UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE TO BACH'S B MINOR MASS ELIN MANAHAN THOMAS AND ARMONICO CONSORT by Christopher Morley What is the connection between University Challenge, the Royal Wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the Paralympic Games, and the Warwick-based Armonico Consort? The answer is, they have all featured appearances by the star soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, who appeared in a University Challenge Christmas Special, representing Clare College Cambridge (a Choral Scholarship there had enabled her to take a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic). I ask her if she approaches such events any differently from the way she approaches, say, the intimacy of a baroque concert. " That's a good question," she tells me from her Sussex home, "and it might surprise you to know that I find the bigger-scale stuff easier in many ways. "I've always felt that performing is performing, whatever the size of the audience. I

Khachaturian/Dvorak, Liszt CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS NEW CDS OF VIOLIN CONCERTOS BY KHACHATURIAN AND DVORAK, AND LISZT'S DANTE SYMPHONY DVORAK, KHACHATURIAN: Barton-Pine / Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Abrams (Avie AV2411) ★★★★ In Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye private eye Philip Marlowe has the radio on, "listening to Khachaturian in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto". Funny but unfair. There's plenty of tuneful music here, which the Soviet music commissars approved of, but no industrial metal-bashing. Rachel Barton-Pine, with fine support from the RSNO under her fellow American Teddy Abrams, zips energetically through the amazingly catchy moto perpetuo first movement and find plenty of bounce and uplift in the Armenian composer's folk-inflected finale. There's top value in this unique pairing with Dvorak's delightfully sunny concerto. Barton-Pine takes a middle road between the languorous, slightly self-indulgent Mutter (DG) and the amazi

London Symphony Orchestra/Rattle review

SIMON RATTLE AND THE LSO ELECTRIFY SYMPHONY HALL SIR SIMON RATTLE CONDUCTS THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Symphony Hall ***** The electricity humming in the air for this concert could have kept the National Grid going for some time. Not only was there the buzz coming from a packed auditorium greeting the return of Sir Simon Rattle to the hall he launched, there were also the positive ions emanating from his London Symphony Orchestra, liberated from the Barbican's mush, and relishing the acoustic properties of this miraculous space. Rattle plays Symphony Hall like the most responsive of instruments, and here, with the supreme skills of the LSO willingly deployed, he achieved the most astonishing dynamic range, from the subtlest of pianissimos to roaring fortissimos. There was also a luminous clarity of detail, even in the most densely-scored pages of the three works by Berg which constituted the first half of the evening. Dorothea Roschmann was the soprano soloist in the co

CBSO Youth Takeover review

MUSIC CRITIC USES MOBILE PHONE DURING CBSO CONCERT YOUTH TAKEOVER CBSO at Symphony Hall **** The CBSO has been targeting young concertgoers since at least 1921. But still, it was a nice statement of intent to hand the very first evening concert of the orchestra's 100th birthday year to a team of "Youth Ambassadors", who chose an entire programme - duly performed by Jaume Santonja Espinós and an expensive-looking CBSO. The idea – and in Symphony Hall, you go big or you go home – was to offer a "vision of the future". Not everything worked. We were encouraged to use our mobile phones throughout: I did, and can confirm that it's an excellent way to ignore the music entirely. And it would have been good to learn more about the "Ambassadors" themselves: aged between 16 and 21, but mysteriously un-named and largely invisible until the final bow, though two of them came on to recite the whole of Mallarmé's L'après-midi d'un faune.