Showing posts from April, 2023
  Terrific playing from a world-class quartet Pavel Haas Quartet at Birmingham Town Hall ***** It’s an unwritten rule for string quartet recitals that a variety of key and structure is necessary, particularly when only two works are performed. Yet here we had two quartets in G major, Schubert’s No 15 Op 161 and Dvořák’s No 13 in Op 106. Both are late works of four movements; the first moderately fast, the second moderately slow, and a finale with a very quick conclusion. The Pavel Haas Quartet’s performance shows that such programming rules-of-thumb can be broken with impunity. Here was displayed a cornucopia of ideas from two composers of genius, a dazzling variety of detail and a myriad of expressive devices. One key opens many doors. I last saw the Pavel Haas Quartet at this venue in 2014, while there have been personnel changes there’s also continuity; Veronika Jarůšková leads from the first violin, and the quartet’s absolute mastery of their chosen repertoire remains, with a fire-
  A triumphant night for the CBSO’s ‘King Kazuki’ CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ I doubt if the forthcoming coronation of King Charles III will be greeted with such spontaneous joy or the wholehearted embrace which greeted Kazuki Yamada as he was crowned as the CBSO’s new Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor. The packed Symphony Hall audience overflowed with warmth towards the vibrant, bouncing good humoured man whom they have held in great affection since he became Principal Guest Conductor in 2018. At the end of an exhilarating concert we were engulfed in hundreds of black and white “CBSO” embossed balloons released from the ceiling – general genial mayhem ensued. The madcap bacchanalian atmosphere was entirely fitting following a dynamic performance of Carl Orff’s choral blockbuster ‘Carmina Burana’. This was a triumph for the talented choirs and their Chorus Master Julian Wilkins. Just as a sight they were impressive – I gave up counting at around the 200 mark – with the CBSO Chorus a
  Sparkling Vivaldi ‘Four Seasons’ from the CBSO CBSO at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★ Conductors and composers have often transcribed chamber and solo works for full orchestra – from the respectfully faithful to Stokowski’s fancifully garish recreations. A handful are revelatory; one such is Dmitri Mitropoulos' of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor Op. 131. When he conducted it in 1937 with the Boston Symphony a young music student in the audience was so awe-struck that he vowed one day to conduct and record it himself. Listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1977 white-hot recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and be similarly awed – this is as near as we’ll get to hearing “Beethoven’s Tenth”. There’s nothing of that magnitude in Mahler’s transcription of Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ despite it deriving from a chamber music masterpiece based on one of the great songs in lieder literature. The CBSO strings, directed from the first violin by the leader Eugene T
  Hough’s Beethoven steals the show Iceland Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall ★★★★ This was a welcome return to Birmingham for the orchestra, who first visited two years ago, on the road for its 70th anniversary celebratory tour. They are part of a vibrant and thriving classical music scene which is remarkable for a country with a population smaller than, for example, Bristol or Bradford.  Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir  is a fine musical ambassador for her country. Last year the CBSO gave the UK premiere of her apocalyptic score  'Catamorphosis'  which impressed me for  Thorvaldsdottir’ s assured handling of large orchestral forces which combined passages of great beauty and immense power without ever resorting to bombast.  The ISO  performed her 2018 score  ‘Metacosmos’ which also evoked a potent sense of mystery and wonder. The sinister, slithering start with a threateningly rumbling deep bass and keening strings was the stuff of nightmare – if the ‘Alien’ movie f
                                               CBSO                                                                            Symphony Hall **** This well-attended CBSO matinee held an extra significance for me, telling as it did the story of my musical childhood: family legend has it that I conducted Rossini’s Thieving Magpie Overture in front of a mirror at the age of two (those who witnessed it are no longer alive to confirm it); when I was 12 I fell in love with the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola; and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was the first music I really adored, and Father Christmas brought me the LP when I was 9. Soul-barings over, the performance of the Rossini under Julian Rachlin was full of wit and character, percussion delicately controlled (not least the stereophonically-placed snare-drums), and there was absolutely heroic work from the solo trombone. Rachlin took up his violin, joined by violist Sarah McElravy, for the Mozart, in an account w
                                THE POWER OF PATERNAL LOVE                               Barber Opera at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham (April 15) ***** Though ventilation issues mean the Barber Institute auditorium is out of action, thus necessitating the use of the not quite so charming Crescent Theatre as performance venue, it was so heartening to welcome the return of the Barber Opera to its legendary values underlying its founding over 60 years ago by the great Anthony Lewis. My beloved Prof’s mission then was to blow the dust off little-known examples of baroque opera, presenting them to the highest standards, and this production of Alessandro Stradella’s   La Forza dell’Amor Paterno could not have ticked more boxes. It was premiered to enormous acclaim in Genoa in 1678, but then vanished from view, resurfacing to researchers only in 1927, and here receiving its first airing in modern times. The bare bones of the story are simply that the ageing king Seleuco has been be
                                                                               LEAMINGTON MUSIC FESTIVAL 2023 An eminent Arts Editor of the Birmingham Post would always wince whenever I used the word “indefatigable”. “You write as though you’ve swallowed a dictionary,” he would comment, and I dutifully found another way of saying what I wanted to. But “indefatigable” is the exact word to describe Richard Phillips, about to preside over his 107 th arts festival when the popular Leamington Music Festival hits town at the end of the month. As is always the case with Richard, the Festival has the knack of homing in on vibrant pegs, whether composer anniversaries, local connections, or even topical issues, such as Ukraine. How does he explain his nose for this gift? “It is partly who I am and my experiences in life and partly working in the arts, mostly in the world of music, for more than fifty six years,” he replies. “I did not programme concerts or festivals until I was in my fo
  Joyous Brahms Serenade from Leleux CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ When François Leleux conducted Brahms’ ‘ Variations on a Theme by Haydn’  with the CBSO  in 2018 I described it as being  a s being ‘ pleasant, if slightly under-characterized’.  How times have changed. Back then Leleux was a renowned oboist branching out into conducting and while he’s  the same  ebullient larger-than-life character his conducting is far more assured. There was plenty of swagger, vigour and character in  Brahms ‘Academic Festival Overture’, written to commemorate his receiving a philosophy degree. An honorary one, since Brahms had been a professional jobbing musician at fourteen, but he had something in common with the posh boys from the university’s fraternities though – a love of beer and drinking songs. He celebrated both in this boisterous, roistering work, with the CBSO puffing out their collective chest for Brahms’s mock-pompous rendition of ‘Gaudeamus igitur’, complete with academic counterpoint. A
                                                              NASH INVENTIONS                                                             Wigmore Hall, March 28 ***** A contemporary music concert attracting some of our finest composers, performers, reviewers, sponsors and enlightened listeners was always   going to create a high risk assessment, but fortunately the Wigmore Hall remained intact during this generous programme from the Nash Ensemble. The offerings covered a spectrum of soundworlds, beginning with the evanescent quasi-Northumbrian soundscapes of John Caskens Misted Land for clarinet and string quartet, imaginative string fragments drawing muffled gestures of expectation from the clarinet, occasionally veering into quartertones until at last melancholy nostalgia transforms into a finale driving forward on its nerves. Empathy of ensemble was awe-inspiring. Imagery more concrete was provided by Colin Matthews’ Seascapes, settings of poetry by Sidney Keyes, who died at
  Birmingham Bach Choir St Paul’s Church - 1 st April 2023 *****   I thought I had arrived in good time for an earlier-than-usual 7.00pm start for Birmingham Bach Choir’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom , but I had to join a long queue of people outside, also eager to hear a rare performance – maybe the first one in Birmingham - and St Paul’s church was packed when I took my seat.   It is a tough ask for a choir to perform such a lengthy unaccompanied work, but this fine ensemble was clearly able to carry it off with aplomb, evident even from the very first Amen.   Conductor Paul Spicer announced before the start that sadly the bass soloist had succumbed to Covid. However, tenor Graham Stroud agreed to sing both tenor and bass roles, and as soon as he sang the opening chant we knew he was more than up to the task. Soprano soloist Corinna Gregory soared beautifully above the choir in the exquisite twelfth movement.   But what was most impress
                                      ICELAND SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA   The Iceland Symphony Orchestra made a huge impression when they visited Symphony Hall as part of their 70 th anniversary tour just before the Covid lockdown, and are now set to make a welcome return on April 21. Their programme begins with Metacosmos by their composer-in-residence Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.5. Between these two works comes Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Sir Stephen Hough the distinguished soloist.   Conducting the evening is Eva Ollikainen, whose contract as Principal Conductor has recently been extended to 2026, soon after her initial appointment to the orchestra. She recalls how she felt an immediate bonding between herself and the players.      "I still remember like yesterday our first encounter in 2005, in the old hall which was a university cinema (!). The musical and human chemistry was instantly there, I remember the joy of making musi
  New classical recordings reviewed by Norman Stinchcombe Strauss  & Debussy : London Symphony Orchestra / Fran ç ois-Xavier Roth (LSO Live CD & SACD)  ★★★★ Live recordings of Richard Strauss’s tone poem ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are very difficult to balance. Giving the opening organ 32ft pedal note sufficient weight without recording it too closely, requiring a disorientating change in focus when the orchestra enters, is a difficult hurdle. It’s one Andris Nelsons’ live Boston recording found insuperable – it sounds as if the listener’s head is wedged in the organ pipe. No such problem with this fine new LSO recording with the engineers capturing the music’s power and the orchestra’s poise. Roth also ensures that the rest of the score is not an anti-climax after the famous ‘2001’ opening fanfare. Succeeding episodes are well characterized and delineated with a beautifully sweet and lilting Viennese ‘Tanzlied’ from the first violin. There’s a substantial bonus with the music f