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Showing posts from June, 2023
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Bach ‘Notebooks for Anna Magdalena’: Esfahani, Sampson (Hyperion CD)  ★★★★★ The two slim notebooks of music presented by Bach to his second wife – a professional singer 15 years younger than her husband – are a priceless cultural artefact. Anna Magdalena carried on singing after her marriage, finding time to conceive 14 children, and on this disc Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord and clavichord) and soprano Carolyn Sampson gives us an entertaining and beautifully performed selection of what music the couple played and sang for instruction and entertainment at home. They include works by Bach, two of his sons, Couperin, Hasse and Gottfried Heinrich St√∂lzel whose operatic aria ‘Bist du bei mir’ – long mistakenly attributed to Bach – is ravishingly sung by Sampson and sensitively accompanied by Esfahani who also contributes the informative booklet notes. His playing is always intelligent, incisive and intriguingly embellished. There
                                               CANDIDE                                                             Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff *****   Closest of all his works to his huge heart, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has been a victim of the many midwives present at its gestation. Jealousies, egos, conflicting linguistic styles, all contributed towards a massive confusion as to whether Bernstein’s more-than-wonderful score should be considered a musical, an opera, or an operetta. There currently exist at least seven performing versions of this theatrical presentation of Voltaire’s novella satirising mid-18 th century philosophers such as Leibniz claiming everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Welsh National Opera have raised two fingers to all this farrago, recreating the piece in the most engaging way possible, with production values more imaginative than one could have envisioned, musical standards unsurpassable, and
  L’ELISIR d’AMORE                                                             Longborough Festival Opera                                                             *****   Donizetti’s cosy little l’Elisir d’Amore slips too easily under our radar. It is greedily seized upon by worthy amateur societies, not many principals needed, an orchestra easily cut down, a chorus given quaint village reactions. Not a bit of it with this wonderful staging from Longborough Festival Opera, joyous, inventive, and totally charming, making even these jaded old eyes and ears aware of what an absolute masterpiece this is in such a gem of a production. Director Max Hoehn sets the action in a busy little English village, perhaps in the Cotswolds, with evocations of Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead, Father Brown’s Camelford, or even Camberwick Green ( we see a cut-out of Nemorino’s Postman Pat van driving up the hillside). There is no chorus in this presentation; instead everyone has an individual rol
                                                              ALDEBURGH FESTIVAL   Aldeburgh is a very special place at any time of the year, but during the Festival it takes on an added dimension. Benjamin Britten becomes such a presence, and even my hotel, the White Lion right on the beach, radiates its place as one of the locations of Peter Grimes, along with the Moot Hall, just a few yards away – not to mention the shacks where the nightly fish-catches are speedily smoked, skinned and gutted, or dressed. These were a blissful four days in my reviewing calendar, beginning with an evocative afternoon at the Red House (home to Britten and Peter Pears), in which young artists from the Britten Pears Young Artists Scheme, informatively introduced by Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library, Britten Pears Arts, revealed Britten’s early and continuing fascination with the viola, along with the influence of his teacher Frank Bridge. Among the immensely talented performers, vi
  A Fine Finale and great expectations for the new CBSO Season CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Like many people Kazuki Yamada spent last Sunday soaking up the summer sunshine on a trip to the countryside. Taking in the sylvan beauty of the Malvern Hills was something of a busman’s holiday for him. Those hills were a source of inspiration and spiritual sustenance for Elgar – the perfect way for Yamada to prepare for conducting the composer’s first symphony. It may have contributed to this passionately idiomatic performance, with every player from section leaders to the back desks in refulgent form. There are conducting pitfalls in the symphony’s Adagio – beauty alone is not enough. Sinopoli, for example, achieved that but did so by making it sound like Bruckner – solemn, beautiful and utterly chaste. Elgar shared Bruckner’s Catholic faith but he was a passionately romantic man and his music is often as sensual as that of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Yamada, and the revitalized CBSO strings,
  Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony played with heart, soul and style CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 in E minor is a gloriously romantic work but also a long one. At around an hour there are plenty of potential pitfalls for a conductor and players: seductive invitations to linger over those luscious harmonies and beguiling melodies a little too long; to languish in the rich downy cushioned string sonorities; for brass and percussion to bellow and bang when let off the leash in the full-throttle finale. The first of conductor Kazuki Yamada and the CBSO players’ achievements in this terrific performance was that every such temptation was resisted and pitfalls skilfully steered around. The second was that it was devoid of timidity, caution or circumspection – this was Rachmaninoff with heart and soul. Yamada is very much a modern maestro; media savvy, extrovert, and audience-friendly. Interpretatively though he’s endearingly old school, a throwback to the era of fle
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases ‘ Folk Songs of the British Isles’: Various artistes (Somm Recordings CD) ★★★★ Gwyn Williams was a popular long-serving viola player with the CBSO, joining in the late 1960s under Hugo Rignold and appointed principal viola by Sir Simon Rattle. After Gwyn’s death in 2015 his widow Stephannie established a Bursary Fund in his memory which supports talented young violists at Birmingham’s Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and endows chairs in the CBSO Youth Orchestra. She has organized fundraising concerts at Birmingham Town Hall, the CBSO Centre and the Conservatoire. Now comes this disc, a musical trip around the British Isles with 27 songs presented by a star roster of performers, giving their services free, with proceeds being donated to the Bursary Fund. There is something for everyone from perennial favourites like ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ (tenor Nicky Spence), ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ (mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard) and ‘
                                                              GOTTERDAMMERUNG                                                             Longborough Festival Opera *****   So many times have I reviewed performances of Gotterdammerung and muttered to myself, “just get on with it!” during les mauvais quatre d’heures. Not a bit of it in this enthralling and engaging production of this tying-up of all the loose ends in the final opera of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy. His frequent recourse to back-story (why so, when all devotees will have soaked up the prequels?) is made vivid and gripping in this highly intelligent production by Amy Lane. Every moment in these five-odd hours (who’s counting?) is invested with interest and involvement, whether it be the communicative body-language of the singers (often revealing their inner psychology), the complementary response of the ever-changing back-projections and lighting, or, and this can never be understated, the amazingly shifting textural w
  Saturday 3 rd June 2023   The Elgar Festival Gala Concert Worcester Cathedral ****   “One of the greatest slow movements since Beethoven”, Elgar’s publisher Augustus Jaeger (the original dedicatee of ‘Nimrod’) wrote of Sir Edward’s First Symphony – and hearing this sincere and loving performance given by the English Symphony Orchestra, sensitively shaped by conductor Kenneth Woods, it’s hard to disagree.   The slow movement is the emotional heart of this symphony and where Worcester Cathedral’s warm and resonant acoustic was of most benefit; in other movements, it proved less helpful, blurring some of the detail of Elgar’s wonderful orchestration and dulling the bite of the brass articulation.   But there was so much to admire here in terms of the playing – gutsy strings, fine solos from the woodwind and orchestral leader, and heroic horns in their delivery of the Straussian demands placed upon them. Throughout the work, Woods kept the pace flowing effectively (esp