Showing posts from November, 2022
  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
  Nobuyuki Tsujii at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★ The recital was preceded by a short film on the remarkable rise to fame of Japanese pianist  Nobuyuki Tsujii.  The 34-year-old was  born blind the film showed the tousle-haired toddler playing a tiny toy piano picking out tunes he heard his mother hum. He still learns all his repertoire purely by ear. He’s a star in Japan and had plenty of his fans in the audience.  Tsujii  saved the best until last with a dazzling performance of the  Ukrainian composer Nicolai Kapustin’s 8 Concert Etudes, Op 4, a winning fusion of classical structure and jazz improvisational style. In the 1950s Kapustin played in jazz groups and big bands but his compositions are rooted in Bach rather than Stan Kenton, with all seeming improvisations fully written-out. Each is short, two minutes or thereabouts, and are ideal encores as can be seen on YouTube, including  Tsujii  playing the first at the end of a concert. Kapustin wisely varied their style with fast-past ext
  Sunday 6 th November 2022   City of Birmingham Choir & CBSO Symphony Hall ****   The arresting opening fanfare of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony (1910) announces not only the vast ocean (“Behold, the sea itself”) but arguably the arrival of this much-loved of English composers onto the world’s stage, since this was the ‘late-to-bloom’ composer’s breakthrough work.   And the City of Birmingham Choir can claim a special connection given that Vaughan Williams himself conducted them in a performance of the symphony, again with the CBSO, at Birmingham Town Hall, in 1955. This no doubt provided some additional motivation since the choir were on fine form here, with strongly projected diction in the opening movement’s joyous depiction of ships and sailors, appropriately ‘fleet of foot’ in the scherzo, but with a consistently sweet, blended tone in the more lyrical passages throughout.   Balance is often a problem in this extensive musical canvas, and the sing
                                      EX CATHEDRA’S SONGS OF PROTEST                                     By Christopher Morley   For Sunday’s Remembrance Day concert Ex Cathedra have gone one step beyond “Lest We Forget”, presenting a powerful programme of “Songs of Protest”, putting the case for peace, political freedom, compassion for our fellow human beings, and the fight against torture. South African-born, Moseley-based composer John Joubert wrote many pieces for Ex Cathedra over the decades, chief of which is South of Line, settings of some of Thomas Hardy’s   bitter Boer War poems, already recorded twice under Jeffrey Skidmore, and now given a welcome live re-hearing under his direction.   James MacMillan has also composed several times for Ex Cathedra, notably his oratorio Seven Angels, premiered in 2015. In Sunday’s programme we hear Cantos Sagrados, a protest about political repression in Latin America and the “disappearance” of political prisoners. Combining poet
                                               RBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA                                              Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ***   It was surely clumsy planning to include two new piano concertos not only in the same programme, but, even worse, both in the first half of that programme. It was also somewhat unfair to make the work of a relative newcomer follow the world premiere of a long-awaited piano concerto by a well-established composer already twice decorated, and performed at the Proms. Errolyn Wallen’s Piano Concerto teems with ideas (perhaps in over-abundance), nodding happily to many of the 20 th century’s greatest composers, and with a particular affinity with Gershwin’s example. Like the Piano Concerto of that composer, Wallen’s begins with urban busy-ness,   like the Gershwin the second movement is bluesy, with a smoky trumpet solo (later mirrored by a solo cello). Unlike Gershwin, however, this movement builds up a raunchy head of steam, d
  Semyon Bychkov’s Mahler series with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has got off to a brilliant start. It’s a very crowded field, so what makes these new discs contenders? The CPO are one of the few European orchestras with an individual sound: their wind playing still carries the balmy sounds of Bohemia and brass and horns have a characteristic pungency. There’s also the outstanding sound quality from audiophile label Pentatone, made in Prague’s   Rudolfinum,  c aptured in CD and Super Audio (SACD) sound. For those with suitable equipment the latter are especially impressive. In Symphony No.4 ( ★★★★★) it’s vital to get a singer with the qualities Mahler wanted for the concluding child’s vision of heavenly life.   Being a great singer is not sufficient  nor  is opulence, power, or beautiful tone. Margaret Price, Kiri Te Kanawa and Renee Fleming have all those qualities in abundance but were not  “ capable of singing with a naive, childlike expression”  in their recordings of the work