Showing posts from April, 2022

Norman Stinchcombe's latest CBSO review

SORENSEN'S HARPSICHORD CONCERTO DISAPPOINTS CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ The Danish composer Bent Sørensen's Bach-inspired harpsichord concerto in six movements 'Sei anime' ('Six Souls') received its UK premiere. Sørensen told us that the title would more be accurately construed as 'Six Lonely Souls'. The soloist Mahan Esfahani and the Bergen Philharmonic gave the world premiere last month but, having listened to it three times, repeated hearings have failed to reveal any depths under its rebarbative, busily unigratiating surface. Esfahani wasn't always audible, despite having a microphone thrust under the lid and five speakers strung across the platform. He was, though, in its final seconds as he leant inside and plucked the strings by hand. Sometimes the instrument tinkled like a music box with a stuck mechanism accompanied by wind glissandi and belching brass, the latter sounding very like Sørensen's 1990 trombone work 'The bells of Vi

Raising Icarus Barber Opera review

BARBER OPERA HITS THE GROUND RAISING ICARUS Barber Opera at Birmingham Repertory Theatre *** Founded in the late 1950s by the great Anthony Lewis, the Barber Operas rapidly became touchstones of quality performances of baroque opera (Scarlatti, Rameau, and above all, Handel) featuring singers clearly rising to the top of the tree, Janet Baker just one example. As an undergraduate at Birmingham University in the late 1960s it was my privilege to be involved in these productions in the Barber Institute's jewel of a theatre, whether as chorister, stage-hand, or indeed orchestral player. Wonderful indelible memories were made. Time and financial constraints have moved things on. After several fallow years (not just because of Covid), the Barber Opera has resurrected, but now in the functional Studio at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and with the premiere of a chamber opera by one of the University's own composers, Michael Zev Gordon. "Raising Icarus" i

Chipping Campden Music Festival

WONDERFUL MUSIC-MAKING IN CHIPPING CAMPDEN CHIPPING CAMPDEN MUSIC FESTIVAL By Christopher Morley Two of the greatest joys in life are wine and song (you can guess the missing third joy), and Charlie Bennett embodies them both. Charlie, a retired wine merchant of exceptional renown, has established an amazing festival in Chipping Campden, attracting the world's greatest international musicians to this impossibly charming Cotswolds town. Over the years it has been my privilege to review several of his presentations, including last year an amazing Schubert recital from probably the world's greatest pianist still performing, Elisabeth Leonskaja. Settle back as Charlie tells me how it all came about. "I was born in Chipping Campden and was a pupil at Chipping School from 1962-69. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all bakers and until 2016 we still lived in the house I was born in. After school I studied piano with Professor Angus Morris

Norman Stinchcombe reviews Mozart and Mahler from the CBSO

FIVE STAR MOZART AND MAHLER CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ From the opening impressive ringing call-to-arms of Matthew Williams' trumpet to the closing notes of untrammelled joy in the rondo finale there was much to savour in this performance of Mahler's fifth symphony. Under Christoph König's crisp and incisive direction – his podium restraint reminiscent of his countryman Christoph von Dohnányi – there was energy and drive with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally the result sounded a mite too civilized and reined in but restraint and discipline brought compensations too, most notably in the Adagietto. Mahler's tempo indication is "Sehr langsam (Very slow)". I doubt if it would have been if he could have foreseen the late twentieth century trend for gross tempo inflation. The was a musical love letter to Mahler's wife Alma: a mere eight minutes when conducted by Mahler's close friends and confidants Mengelberg and Walter, more recently a slow dirge used

Welsh National Opera Don Giovanni review

FROM DARKNESS TO JOYOUS LIGHT DON GIOVANNI Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ***** So often in opera performances, one or more of the many ingredients – singing, playing, acting, staging, lighting, costumes, directing, to name but some – don't quite hit the mark, even if others prove to be outstanding; this was not the case with WNO's revival of their 2011 production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' where every element delivered, resulting in a hugely satisfying evening's entertainment. Mozart's moralistic tale – at times comedic, at times sinister, but always ambiguous in how it plays with our empathy for Giovanni – is sympathetically told through the vision of director John Caird. The striking set design by John Napier – monolithic walls that move in sections to focus the drama – prove surprisingly versatile at assisting with the storytelling, including the use of multiple doors which are ideal for this opera where Giovanni, and his unfor

WNO Jenufa review by Norman Stinchcombe

NORMAN STINCHOMBE REVIEWS WNO'S JENUFA Jenůfa: Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★★ Like all great dramatic works Janacek's Jenůfa rests on a few simple but universal truths: we hurt those we love; murder will out; to err is human, to forgive, divine. It pivots on the jealousy of disinherited Laca Klemeň who has loved his cousin Jenůfa since childhood but she, while Laca served in the army, fell for his handsome mill-owning half-brother Števa, a shallow seducer. She is now pregnant by him, a fact she is keeping secret, naively hoping that he will marry her. In this Moravian village – dark and forbidding in Katie Mitchell's austere production – this will lead to infanticide, despair and finally redemption. Janacek's wonderful score makes the moral transformation believable in a taut, sharply etched performance by the WNO orchestra under Wyn Davies, although he let the orchestra sometimes overpower the singers in Act 1. Every key transformative mom

John WIlson Strauss and Korngold, Vaughan Williams CD reviews

LATEST JOHN WILSON AND VAUGHAN WILLIAMS REVIEWS FROM NORMAN STINCHCOMBE 'Metamorphosen': Sinfonia London / Wilson ★★★★ John Wilson and his players give a sensitively articulated broadly-paced performance of Richard Strauss's 1945 threnody 'Metamorphosen'. His 'Study for 23 solo strings' laments what he called the Nazis' "12 year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture" but also the Allies' retributive justice as bombing flattened the cultural centres of Weimar, Dresden and Munich. The Chandos recording's wonderful transparency allows us to hear the subtle interplay of parts and Strauss's quotation from Beethoven's 'Eroica'. The central section is increasingly agitated as Strauss directs but never attains the intensity and anguish of the Staatskapelle Dresden's '70's recording under supreme Straussian Rudolf Kempe who truly, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." In total contrast

Chris Morley interviews Kenneth Woods of the ESO

ESO BACK IN THE CONCERT-HALL KENNETH WOODS AND THE ENGLISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA By Christopher Morley The Worcester-based English Symphony Orchestra has achieved wonderful things during the two years of lockdown and pandemic, zooming concerts and maintaining team spirit, but conductor Kenneth Woods is over the moon about returning to performing in front of a live audience. "There is just nothing like the feeling of a live concert," he enthuses. "he excitement of performing great music without a safety net generates the most incredible collaborative energy in an orchestra, and the presence of an audience, their attention, their involvement further heightens the intensity. It's been doubly nice for ESO because I think our regimen of very challenging recording work during covid has made us an even better orchestra. "The flip side of all of this is that this remains a moment of great peril. Ticket sales for all orchestras are fluctuating wild

Ex Cathedra St Matthew Passion

JEFFREY SKIDMORE REFRESHES BACH'S ST MATTHEW PASSION ST MATTHEW PASSION Ex Cathedra at Symphony Hall ***** I have attended performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion since the time it was almost contemporary music, and have endured so many heavy, portentous renditions, mainly emanating from self-regarding metropolitan societies, going through the sacrosanct motions year after year. Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra will have none of that. Such an enthusiast, who brings detailed scholarship and documentary revelations into his vivid accounts of everything he touches, Skidmore is always looking for ways to breathe life into the music in question, recreating the circumstances of its origins – though I doubt even he could have imagined the big band playing ABBA selections as we entered the foyer. Once we got over that culture shock, one certainly unlooked-for on a Good Friday, there was much to admire in the freshness of Skidmore's approach, opening with Alec Rot

La Traviata a tthe Royal Opera House

ANGEL BLUE TRIUMPHS IN LA TRAVIATA LA TRAVIATA Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Heartfelt thanks to the ROH for another straight, no-frippery production of one of the repertoire greats, this time Verdi's La Traviata in director Richard Eyre's meticulously detailed, loving staging. Bob Crowley's sets evoke Parisian opulence (Violetta's party-room actually reminding me of Birmingham Art Gallery's great round foyer!) and the heroine's eventual penury, though we must have missed the luxury referred to by Giorgio Germont when he gatecrashes the love-nest shared by his son and Violetta. Vocal values are very high, and so is the acting. led, above all, by Angel Blue as a most moving Violetta. We first see her during the Prelude (an opening so hushed as to be a miscalculation by Verdi, but here the audience was impeccably silent – though breaking into applause at the end of arias, and even in the middle of them, and crashing into the finale's closi

Pennington and Shakespeare

ONE-MAN SHAKESPEARE SHOW ON THE BARD'S ANNIVERSARY MICHAEL PENNINGTON PLAYS THEATREBARN By Christopher Morley Theatrebarn is exactly what it says on the tin; it is a comfortably raked auditorium looking down onto a compact stage in a converted barn, part of Bretforton Grange in the Vale of Evesham. The enterprise began over forty years ago when James Wellman, an actor at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and his chef partner, David Swift, decided that they wanted to run their own theatre and fine-dining restaurant. Bretforton Grange seemed to fit the bill, with its medieval long gallery and vaulted stone undercroft, and after two years of planning and work, the opening performance was given by Dame Peggy Ashcroft and pianist James Walker in October 1979. Performances took place in the long gallery, rechristened as the Theatre Room, with stylish dinners served to patrons afterwards in the undercroft, but demand outgrew the surroundings, so in the early 1990s J

Beethoven Symphonies and Fidelio reviewed

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS TWO MAJOR NEW BEETHOVEN RELEASES BEETHOVEN Symphonies 6-9: Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Nacional de Catalunya / Savall (3 CD / SACD) ★★★★ Original instrument surveys of Beethoven's complete symphonies have always stumbled at the ninth – Jordi Savall's is no exception. Partly it's a question of tempi: the set claims this performance takes just under 64 minutes but the CD player reveals it's barely 60, which I found untenable. The slow movement is deprived of sublimity, the scherzo of wit, the finale of grandeur, despite some good choral and solo singing. It's a pity because there's a lot to enjoy in this set. The 'Pastoral' is a joy with its rambunctious peasants' dance, thrilling storm – hard-stick timpani rattling impressively – and a beautifully played beneficent prayer. Savall and his players revel in the eight's pawky humour and the seventh has tremendous drive and energy, the 'Allegretto' take

Birmingham Bach Choir review

A WONDERFUL RETURN TO LIVE MUSIC FROM THE BIRMINGHAM BACH CHOIR We also celebrated the return of the Birmingham Bach Choir to live performance after so many months of lockdown, and also celebrated the heroism of Ukraine, the choristers sporting that besieged country's national colours, and singing A Prayer for Ukraine to open the concert. A more personal celebration came with the world premiere of conductor Paul Spicer's Sound the Invisible Trumps (beginning in the organ depths like Honegger's Christmas Cantata), dedicated to the memory of Pauline Round, a valued and much-loved past-President of the Choir, and which indeed sets two little gems of her poems amidst medieval poetry and Walter de la Mare. There was an inner dedication, too, the second setting "Brief is our Life" remembering Mike Lloyd, a valued long-term supporter of the choir, succumbing to Covid at the very onset of the pandemic, the actual subtext of Spicer's well-structured piece. Emily

Some Enchanted Evenings at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY ENJOYED THREE ENCHANTED EVENINGS AT EASTBOURNE'S GRAND HOTEL SOME ENCHANTED EVENINGS Appassionata at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne ***** Eastbourne's breathtakingly magnificent Grand Hotel, so imposing yet also so welcoming, has an impressive roster of visiting musicians since its opening in 1875. Among the many luminaries who have crossed its portals are Debussy (who completed La Mer here), Kreisler, Caruso, Nellie Melba, Ysaye, Paul Robeson, Myra Hess… the list goes on. Latest to join them is the young vocal quartet Appassionata, who, together with pianist Will Sharma, presented a three-night entertainment "Some Enchanted Evenings" at the end of March. It began with baritone Matthew Siveter, already a much-loved veteran of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, presenting his one-man show "A Source of Innocent Merriment", drawing material from the likes of G&S themselves, Noel Coward, Flanders and Swann, Tom Lehrer, as well as d