Showing posts from 2022
  Thursday 22 nd December 2022   EX CATHEDRA St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham ****   Fully freed from the unwelcome restrictions of Covid protocols, the 2022 edition of Ex Cathedra’s annual ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ concert series saw a welcome return to the fully immersive aural experience that is its hallmark, opening with a moving rendition of ‘This is the truth’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams sung from the two side aisles, with baritone solo and conductor in the chancel and nave respectively.   Vaughan Williams’ 150 th birthday was just one of multiple current and upcoming anniversaries recognised in this year’s programme – a meditative ‘Ave Maria’ by Anton Bruckner (200 th birthday in 2023) had suitably pleading cries of “Sancta Maria”, whilst the ‘Lullaby, my sweet little baby’ of William Byrd ( 2023 will be the 400 th anniversary of this great English composer’s death) was given a tender reading by the choristers.   However, Ex Cathedra is also a champion of
                                                                             CBSO                                                                            Symphony Hall *****   The afternoon began innocuously, if such a word can be used to describe the concert-opening Brahms Tragic Overture in such a glowing, string-rich account from the CBSO under Alpesh Chauhan. Many present on both sides of the footlights will have seen the conductor develop from his days as a cellist in the Birmingham Schools’ Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO Youth Orchestra, until today he is among the country’s busiest, most sought-after young conductors. But what followed in this traditional table d’hote menu (overture, concerto, symphony) will long remain in the memory. CBSO concertmaster Eugene Tzikindelean took centre stage as soloist in the rarely-performed Nielsen Violin Concerto, a big, spectacular work tackled here with immense aplomb and authority by Tzikindelean’s mellow, communicative instrume
  ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND FORCES WELSH NATIONAL OPERA TO CUT ITS TOURING SCHEDULE By Christopher Morley   The Arts Council’s apparent vendetta against operatic excellence in England for not ticking this month’s trendy boxes has ramifications in other countries, too. Welsh National Opera has long been a touring presence the length and half the breadth of this country on our side of the Severn, but such long-cherished relationships are now in jeopardy. It was recently announced that WNO will cease its Liverpool visits with immediate effect, leaving its phalanx of loyal supporters on Merseyside deprived of world-class grand opera. WNO General Director Aidan Lang tells me how difficult this decision was. “It was indeed a heart-breaking decision but faced with such a significant and unexpected cut to our funding, we had no option but to act quickly. With a cut of this magnitude, Arts Council England obviously cannot imagine that we can carry on as if nothing has happened, and so they
  MARIA CANYIGUERAL BEETHOVEN RECITAL                                              Conway Hall, Holborn Holborn’s acoustically comfortable Conway Hall quietly goes about its Sunday evening business, presenting top-class music-making to enthusiastically discerning audiences, and this latest recital, from Spanish pianist Maria Canyigueral, was Conway at its best. Her programme was a brilliantly obvious one, presenting the three Op.2 Sonatas with which Beethoven set out his stall as a composer for piano, and what a journey they represent. All three are dedicated to his teacher Josef Haydn, and begin with a nod to their prickly tuition time together before moving on to a glorious foretaste of what lay ahead for Beethoven. In an evening of poise, command and interpretative integrity, Canyigueral launched the F minor Sonata with a lightness of touch which permitted occasional moments of explosive power. She allowed the music to speak for itself, all the drama emerging from the notes
                                                              SINFONIA OF LONDON                                                             Barbican Centre *****   Over half a century I have never reviewed a concert as amazing as this, not even from the CBSO in Symphony Hall under its succession of exciting conductors. And this was in the notoriously difficult acoustic of the Barbican, almost entirely mastered by John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London, in which a packed audience rose at the end of a remarkable evening to applaud with a unanimous standing ovation, grumpy me included. The Sinfonia of London was decades ago a scratch recording orchestra. Now John Wilson has revamped it into an ensemble of enthusiastic, willing players, and it is obvious they would give their all for him, as witnessed in this programme of works written within little over two decades in the mid-20 th century. Walton’s Scapino Overture kicked off, both bristling and lyrical (such gentle interch
  ‘ Street Music’, CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ The designated title of the concert was a bit stretched for Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s 1955 trumpet concerto. In truth it was more ‘Sheet Music’ than ‘Street Music’.The work takes its title from the black slave spiritual ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’ but that’s hidden away under Zimmerman’s then fashionable twelve-tone row structure. He utilized a jazzy array of saxophones, Hammond Organ and pounding rhythm section, but unlike in Bebop, the contemporary hip jazz form at the time, doesn’t start with the tune and then improvise on it. The work lasts thirteen minutes but it's only after eleven of them that it emerges in a lonely valedictory solo, tenderly played by the ever-resourceful virtuoso Simon Höfele. It’s a lightbulb moment. Those preceding cacophonic minutes, the orchestra chugging away underneath Höfele’s wailing impassioned playing, was the “trouble” before the final quiet mixture of triumph and resignation. An impressive perform
  Ruggero Leoncavallo is one of Italian opera’s one-hit wonders. Or perhaps not even that since ‘Pagliacci’ only holds its place in the repertory today as one half of the evergreen “Cav & Pag” double bill alongside Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’. His very pleasant ‘La Boheme’ has been outshone and relegated to obscurity by Puccini’s melodic juggernaut. It wasn’t always like this. Leoncavallo’s ‘Zazà’ was once so popular that headlining American diva Geraldine Farrar – mistress of Arturo Toscanini – chose it for her farewell performance at the New York Met in 1922. His later verismo opera ‘Zingari’ was a big success when it came to London in 1912, conducted by the composer, for a long run at the Hippodrome theatre. The wonderfully enterprising label Opera Rare has now given us the chance to hear what we have been missing with both operas recorded in studio conditions after acclaimed concert performances. ‘ Zazà’: Jaho, Massi, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Maurizio Benini
  Sinfonia of London at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ John Wilson established his conducting career as Britain’s Mr Hollywood, forming his own orchestra for a hugely successful series of concerts and recordings of film and American musical classics. His tastes are more catholic and his talents far wider as demonstrated in his recordings with the revivified Sinfonia of London. I’ve been extolling the virtues (critic-speak for raving about) of their award-winning Chandos recordings for the last couple of years. Now they were here in the flesh – could they replicate the recorded magic? In spades. After spending 90 minutes inching one mile through gridlocked Birmingham city centre a pick-me-up was desperately needed. This concert, crowned by a stupendous performance of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, audience on their feet and applause bouncing from every surface, was the perfect remedy. Wilson is an affable Geordie with a level of audience rapport that makes most conductors look like shop display mannequins. At
                                               DUDLEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION                                              Symphony Hall, Birmingham *****   From the humblest of beginnings as a music festival class for a Rose Bowl prize held in a living-room, the Dudley International Piano Competition has grown into one of the UK’s major competitions. Over 55 years I have followed its progress until now it holds its preliminary recital rounds in Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, with the Concerto Final at Symphony Hall, accompanied by the CBSO, no less, conducted by the unflappable and vastly experienced Michael Seal. It deserves a larger audience than that which attended Thursday’s Final. Those of us there enjoyed performances of mainstream concertos from three gifted young musicians, playing on a bright-toned, warmly sonorous Kawai instrument. The piano manufacturers were major sponsors here, as has been the Limoges Charitable Trust for many years, and one can sense the
  Birds of Paradise: CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ This ornithologically-themed concert was the idea of Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto but due to illness he was unavailable. He had programmed music by his countrymen Sibelius and Rautavaara but more intriguing was his choice of Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’; it would have been fascinating to hear his take on this quintessentially English work. Withdrawals, however, create chances for others and so violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and one of the CBSO’s assistant conductors Bertie Baigent, making a very calm and assured debut, shared Kuusisto’s dual roles. One casualty of Kuusisto’s absence was Isobel Waller-Bridge’s ‘Temperatures’, which he premiered last year in London. It was replaced by the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony – a pleasant gently ambling performance – with the late appearance of a nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets) justifying its inclusion. Swedish composer An
                                               THE NUTCRACKER                                              Birmingham Royal Ballet at Birmingham Hippodrome ***** First aired as a gift to Birmingham nearly a third of a century ago, Sir Peter Wright’s production for the then fledgling Birmingham Royal Ballet of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker has become a Christmas classic, and this year has grown new wings after a lockdown-enforced rethink. John McFarlane’s always brilliant set designs have had a spectacular revamp, costumes have had a wash and brush-up, and the whole show has a freshness which almost makes it a premiere again, 32 years on. Much of this is due to the increased emphasis on the magician Drosselmeyer, creator of the Nutcracker doll, instigator of all the mayhem which ensues when the doll confronts the rats lurking behind the chimney, and now, in this reworking, a major presence in Act Two, acting as master of ceremonies as Clara enjoys performances from a stamp-album of w
                                               PETER DONOHOE                                                                            Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon **** Stratford Music Festival was host to something of a groundbreaking coup in Shakespeare’s church last Thursday, when one of the world’s greatest pianists entertained us with composers whose music was new to his already vast repertoire. Promoted in connection with the Stratford-upon-Avon Music Society, this 50 th anniversary recital for the Denne Gilkes Memorial Fund was given by Peter Donohoe. In many ways it was Chopin-derived, but the novelties came with him exploring two of Spain’s greatest composers. Donohoe began with Busoni’s powerful, arresting Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Donohoe unleashing its torrent of virtuosity but also homing in on a lovely little waltz section with left-hand eloquence. Textures were frequently Rachmaninovian, and indeed the first half of the recital concluded with
  Tchaikovsky & Rimsky-Korsakov: LSO / Noseda (LSO Live CD / SACD) ★★★★ The London Symphony Orchestra’s excellent series of Tchaikovsky symphony recordings, under their principal guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda, continues with a vigorous performance of No.5. The work is dominated by its ‘Fate’ theme, on low clarinet and strings, presented with great clarity in the label’s familiar up-front Barbican recording balance. The symphony contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most luscious music – sample the Andante cantabile second movement’s horn theme or the third movement’s scintillating waltz – but Noseda favours flowing speeds and doesn’t highlight those sweet spots by suddenly slowing-down. In the grandiose finale, with the ‘Fate’ theme hoisted aloft and triumphantly transformed, he avoids indulgence or mere hell-for-leather rapidity. The orchestral suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairytale opera ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ is a sparklingly played substantial bonus: an homag
  CITY OF BIRMINGHAM SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA                                              Symphony Hall ***** Two stars new to the city illuminated Birmingham on Tuesday, bringing a   programme applauded to the rafters by yet another well-filled house for a CBSO matinee. The exciting young Swiss-Australian conductor Elena Schwarz magicked us with a well-coloured, rhythmically lively Dukas Sorcerer’s Apprentice, its ending so crestfallen that we couldn’t help but feel for Fantasia’s Mickey Mouse. Schwarz’ beat was mercurial, crisp yet meltingly flowing where appropriate, but restraining itself appropriately when collaborating in thr concerto, here Prokofiev’s Second for the Violin. Soloist was Clara-Jumi Kang, her rich, singing tone never hectoring in Prokofiev’s characteristically narrative opening, her bowing busy and assertive in the composer’s mechanistic passages. The orchestra is small in this treasurable work, but made a powerful presence under Schwarz, the slow movement’s p
 STOP PRESS: Lucy Crowe is replacing Lisette Oropesa as soprano soloist in John Nelson's presentation of Handel's Messiah in Coventry Cathedral.
                                                                             SONGS OF PROTEST                                                                            Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall **** In this thoughtful programme Ex Cathedra went beyond mere remembrance this Armistice-tide and instead chose works railing against torture, repression and soulless militarism, two of them world premieres. Jeffrey Skidmore, now an august, avuncular presence seated on his conductor’s chair, drew from his choristers singing of immense clarity and engagement, not least in James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados which opened the afternoon’s proceedings. Urgent, spitfire diction from the chorus, tumbling with anger (basses particularly fired up), eventually gave way to visionary calm, delivered with sustained, quiet intensity, before that spitfire diction returned as onomatopoeia whilst a prisoner fell victim to a gimcrack firing-squad. Jonathan Hope contributed a sensitive organ commen
       JOHN NELSON CONDUCTS HANDEL’S MESSIAH IN COVENTRY CATHEDRAL          By Christopher Morley World-renowned as a Berlioz interpreter, John Nelson steps back more than a century when he conducts Handel’s Messiah in Coventry Cathedral later this month. This will be Nelson’s first visit to this symbol of international reunification rising from the horrors of World War II, but is by no means his first Messiah. ,   “It has been a long-term dream to conduct the Messiah in Coventry. In today’s turbulent world, where conflict has returned to Europe and the suffering of millions of displaced families has come close to all our lives, I hope that this concert of the Messiah in this symbolic location can be a powerful message of hope,” he says. “A lifetime of performing the Messiah in wildly varying situations (a poor performance early in my career at Westminster Choir College, a bloated performance with 300 choristers in Chicago, a China premiere performance in Shanghai) has brough
  Vaughan Williams at 150, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’: CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ It was a promising idea to show Ealing Films’ sober and reverential ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, with a score by Vaughan Williams, as part of the composer’s 150 th  celebrations. Tommy Pearson, the man behind the project and a familiar face as a presenter of CBSO concerts devoted to film music, revealed that it was also a tricky one. Modern movies have a separate music track, just select the ‘off’ button and the orchestra can play without a problem. But this 1948 film is technically primitive in comparison, cramming dialogue, sound effects and music onto a mono soundtrack in a seemingly inextricable combination. The Los Angeles-based technical wizards Audionamix painstakingly separated them and while, as Pearson adds there was still, “quite a fiddly process” to synchronize Vaughan Williams’ music cues and the screen images, it worked. Was it worth all the effort? Absolutely. The musical experience was a revel
                                               CBSO VAUGHAN WILLIAMS CELEBRATION                                              Symphony Hall *****   I could name at least six English composers I would celebrate above Vaughan Williams, but this is his sesquicentenary year, and everyone is doing him proud, not least the CBSO. Tonight’s concert was the second in a tight sequence of three honouring this admittedly much-loved composer, and the performances under Michael Seal were beyond magnificent. We began with the Wasps Overture, joyous, celebratory, busy, clearly-defined and actually utterly gorgeous. Intriguingly, there was one harp mid-stage left, and two others stage right (no, this wasn’t an hallucination of Wagner’s Ring cycle), the latter two coming into play during the vocal items which followed. The rarely-heard Toward the Unknown Region found Simon Halsey’s CBSO Chorus at the top of its customary impressive game, projecting with such clarity of diction, building up hug
  ‘ La Bohème ’: Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★ Puccini’s evergreen work is a banker for opera companies – the audience-attracting equivalent of the Christmas pantomime for theatres. It’s understandable then that WNO wanted to maximize its potential by staging the opera on three successive nights alternating two sets of principal singers and conductor. The plan didn’t work for this lacklustre first night with an audience whose disappointing smallness was matched by an outsized bronchial accompaniment from some members. It can be invidious to compare new and past productions but also a critical necessity. The WNO’s wonderful G ö ran J ä rvefelt production, last seen in 2009, had the colour, passion and intensity that this one lacks. Caroline Chaney was the revival director for that production but I found her own, with designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis, largely unconvincing. The impact of the four Bohemians’ comic antics are diminished by housing them in an attic flat w
  ‘ The Makropulos Affair’: Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★★ Janáček’s opera is a heady brew, its plot feeling like a mixture of Dickens, and Wilkie Collins plus Rider Haggard’s ageless femme fatale ‘She’. While Janáček’s operatic Prelude plays, Sam Sharples’ monochrome video’s suggestively sinister close-ups, unfurling documents and multiple signatures signals that the “Affair” of the title is a legal one. Nicola Turner’s imaginative design for the solicitor Vitek’s office has the characters dwarfed by papers impaled on 20ft high spikes, the legacy of a case that has lasted longer than Jarndyce v Jarndyce in ‘Bleak House’. The mystery is why should operatic prima donna Emilia Marty be interested in the inheritance dispute between young Albert Gregor and moustache-twirling aristocrat Baron Prus? It’s 1922 and Marty is a black-clad vamp toying with lovesick Gregor – to whom she refers by the emasculating diminutive of ‘Bertie’ – using her erotic power on him, as she wi