Posts

Showing posts from 2023
                                             HANSEL AND GRETEL                                            Royal Opera House, Covent Garden *****   The abiding memory   leaving the theatre is that this was an abundantly happy show. The excellent cast were enjoying themselves, the orchestra were relishing Mark Wigglesworth’s warmly empathetic response to Humperdinck’s wonderful score, and the audience glow could have lit London’s late-night sky (but the abundant Christmas illuminations got there first). Anthony McDonald’s simple, convincing directing over picture-book sets of his own design allows all the action of the opera to develop whilst always focussing concentration on the glorious music. If the highlight of the whole evening was the orchestra’s glorious delivery of the Act II prelude, nothing happening onstage, that does not detract from the enthralment of this production. We begin with a dumbshow through gauze, the family enjoying a simple meal around the kitchen table
  Wednesday 20 th December 2023   EX CATHEDRA St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham ****   One of the most enjoyable aspects of Ex Cathedra’s annual ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ series is that the selection of music is so diverse: from the familiar (‘Away in a Manger’ - tick), to the less familiar, to the new – and, in the latter category, works by no fewer than six Midlands composers.   For one of these, Ex Cathedra’s composer-in-residence Liz Dilnot Johnson, three pieces were included. Here’s a composer that has such an understanding of the voice, writing with a directness and sincerity that’s immediately arresting, whether that be ‘Lighten Our Darkness’ (2023) and its clever blending of texts from the Book of Common Prayer with utterances in local dialects written by young asylum seekers living in Coventry; ‘Gentle Flame’ for double choir with its evocative use of fluttering consonants depicting a flickering flame; or the insistent questioning in ‘Generous Winter’ (a prem
                                             THE REVAMPED CBSO EXPERIENCE                                            By Christopher Morley I   first reviewed the CBSO in 1969 (I began listening as a newly-arrived concertgoer in 1966), and since 1988 have reviewed this brilliant orchestra from my position as chief music critic of the Birmingham Post. From that year onwards it has been my privilege to tour with them, to hold pre-concert interviews with guest performers, to chat with them over post-concert subscribers’ teas, and to marvel all the time at the size of its fan club, not only in the Midlands, but also abroad, as far as Japan. So I am surprised and dismayed that the CBSO’s new backstage leadership seems to be ignoring the wise axiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and is proposing to revamp every aspect of the concert-going experience. My colleague Norman Stinchcombe forensically analysed almost every detail of the orchestra’s initial testing of these waters in the De
  A Gimmick Too Far CBSO at Symphony Hall Music:  +   ★★★★★ “ Concept”:  –   ★ What a review of a CBSO concert should be exclusively concerned with is the music making. I make this glaringly self-evident and undeniable point simply because the way in which it was presented and packaged makes it impossible to do so. This is a source of regret because the performances of Richard Strauss’s ‘Don Quixote’ and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’, symphony were not merely very fine but blazed, coruscated and invigorated. The CBSO’s energy and glorious playing, inspired by the irrepressible Kazuki Yamada, were a joy to hear. These performances were gems, brilliant diamonds which deserved a setting worthy of them rather than a visual “Concept” of incredible vacuity, banality and distracting irrelevance. The CBSO’s new Chief Executive Officer Emma Stenning, microphone in hand, welcomed us to her brave new world and exhorted us to share our opinions of it with her. Read on Ms Stenning. Anyone who missed this ca
  From Mirga With Love – Reciprocated CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ This was a concert with its collective heart in the right place and given wholehearted support from an enthusiastic audience. There’s a lot of goodwill for the people of Ukraine and other nearby countries living in the shadow of the increasingly aggressive and imperialist Russia. All the works received excellent performances and were cheered to the rafters but it would be pushing enthusiasm to the limits to say that any of it was great music. Mirga’s greatest achievement during her tenure as music director was championing Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music. Her CBSO concert, and subsequent recording, of his Symphony No.21 was monumental and magnificent. Here we had two enjoyable but much slighter works. Oliver Janes’ displayed impressive nimbleness in the busy outer movements of the 1970 Clarinet Concerto showing Weinberg’s facility for light music. The middle andante gave hints of his greater work’s emotional depths, a melancho
  Superb Schubert from Paul Lewis Paul Lewis at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★★ A chronological survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas makes sense. A similar Schubert traversal would not work: the early recitals would be relatively lightweight while the later ones would be masterpiece-heavy. Paul Lewis has wisely opted for a carefully curated series with recitals full of interesting contrasts, surprising affinities and a variety of keys. In the third of the series Lewis started with  Schubert’s first completed  Sonata, No 4 in A minor D537  from 1817.  The  20-year-old Schubert had abandoned the drudgery of teaching at his father’s school and moved into the luxurious home of his louche friend Franz von Schober. His 250 lieder showed his talent but was determined to make his mark with piano works, vital for success in Vienna. He lacked the technique to emulate Mozart and Beethoven’s composer-cum-virtuouso  path so aimed at the lucrative domestic music-making market where every respectable bourg
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Delius ‘A Mass of Life’: Soloists, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir / Elder (Lawo Classics 2 CDs)  ★★★★ F or the majority of music lovers for whom Delius is the master of fey miniatures about sunrises, summer evenings, cuckoos and walks by the river, this 90 minute mass – sung in its original German as  ‘Eine Messe des Lebens’ –  will come as a shock. Its huge forces of four soloists,  three choirs a nd orchestra are  a setting of texts from  Nietzsche’ s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’. It was premiered in 1909 in London and has been served well on disc with recordings by Beecham, Groves, Del Mar and Hickox. This new one is perhaps the finest and in sonic terms an easy winner – the explosive opening pins the listener to their seat and the recording captures the work’s huge dynamic swings and Wagnerian fervour. Roderick Williams is outstanding in the important baritone solo part with strong support from Gemma Summerfield, C
                                      JEFFREY SKIDMORE AND EX CATHEDRA                                                 By Christopher Morley   Celebrating Christmas has always been a major fixture in Ex Cathedra’s performing calendar, and this year is no exception.   The chamber choir’s renowned “Christmas by Candlelight” concerts were launched in St Francis’ Church, Bournville in 1970, a year after the ensemble’s founding, and moved to St Paul’s, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, the next year. Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra’s founder and conductor, tells me how “one concert became two, then three, and now five. Later we expanded to concerts throughout the region, and now in London, in Trafalgar Square’s St Martin in the Fields.”   Jeffrey is busy thinking about “Candlelight” all year long. “I am constantly, throughout the year, looking for new works and new composers, I listen to other musicians’  recommendations and a have a pile of music sent to me over the years tha
                               SINFONIA OF BIRMINGHAM                                            All Saints Church, Leamington Spa ****   It is now 30 years since a small group of enthusiasts assembled a new orchestra, the Sinfonia of Birmingham, for a concert in St Mary’s Church, Moseley. Since then the orchestra has grown to acclaim not only in its home city, but also in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy   “185 concerts, 55 venues, 28 conductors, 27 leaders, 64 soloists, and counting!” emblazons the programme-book for last Sunday’s anniversary concert in one of the Sinfonia’s favourite venues. This is such a friendly orchestra, friendly both within its ranks and also in its outreaching to a supportive audience, and the warmth it engenders was clearly in evidence in the otherwise chilly but impressive All Saints Church. Michael Seal, a much-loved long-time regular conductor of SoB, presided over a programme in which the number 5 was predominant. A Fistful of Fives b
                LONGBOROUGH FESTIVAL OPERA – the first 30 years As a young man Martin Graham dreamed of bringing opera to his sleepy home patch nestling in the Cotswolds, and Richard Bratby’s beautiful new book describes the exciting thirty years since that dream began to come to fruition. “Longborough Festival Opera – the first 30 years” details the Grahams’ invitation to Travelling Opera to present productions in the grounds of their house at Banks Fee, on the outskirts of Longborough, it tells of Martin’s hands-on building of a functioning opera-house and his struggle with the local council objecting to its existence and subsequently to the pink colouring of its fa├žade, and later of his victory over HM Revenues and Customs over VAT-exemption (something which benefited arts organisations nationwide). It was not long before visits from travelling companies became unnecessary, with the formation of the thriving organisation which gloried into Longborough Festival Opera. During th
  Boris Giltburg at Birmingham Town Hall  ★★★ Both on disc and in recital it has become accepted that a performance of Rachmaninov’s Preludes should begin with his earliest, the C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2. While this makes chronological sense it’s poor showmanship since, such is its popularity and barnstorming impact, everything that follows can be an anti-climax. So it proved here. After its premiere in 1899 Rachmaninov played it as an encore – due to audience demand – at virtually every appearance until his death in 1943. It would have made him a fortune if he hadn’t sold the copyright for a one-off fee, just as Sibelius did with ‘Valse Triste’, to his lifelong regret. Giltburg made the sinister tolling bell-like opening chords suitably impressive and then lightened his tone so that their eventual return had the doom-laden impact the piece demands. Like the agonies of a man being buried alive – as one female fan wrote to the composer. This hints at a problem when the recital programme