Showing posts from March, 2024
                                                            BEN AND IMO                                                           Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon **** Mark Ravenhill’s tight two-hander tells of the tempestuous relationship between Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, daughter of the late Gustav, who has arrived in Aldeburgh to assist Britten in the composition of his commissioned ceremonial opera “Gloriana”, based on the glorious reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The composer has only nine months before it is to be premiered at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The atmosphere is fraught and pressurised. Originating as a radio-play broadcast in 2013 as part of the Britten centenary celebrations, the play is certainly wordy, and certainly every word is not intelligible, however brilliant the delivery of the actors Samuel Barnett as Britten and Victoria Yeates as Imogen. But their body-language and intensity of their engagement com
  NORMAN STINCHCOMBE INTERVIEWS CHRISTOPHER MORLEY, WHO HAS RESIGNED AFTER 36 YEARS AS CHIEF MUSIC CRITIC OF THE BIRMINGHAM POST At the end of this month Christopher Morley will resign as Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post after 36 years during which time he has covered hundreds of classical music performances at home and abroad. He shadowed the CBSO’s concert tours around the world – filing copy by telephone – and accompanied the Birmingham Bach Choir to Leipzig when it was part of Communist-controlled East Germany. His exploits fill his 2021 autobiography ‘Confessions of a Music Critic’, which is lively, upbeat and often scurrilously funny. His resignation letter is very different. It acknowledges the “huge honour” of working for the newspaper but fears that, “no-one in today’s newsroom will remember” him. Maudlin old age (Morley is 76) or regret for the past, that other country where everything was always better? Neither – nor is it sepia tinted nostalgia. Those really were t
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★ “ America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot”. It’s a cliché now but was a shiny new metaphor when British author Israel Zangwill coined it in 1908. America was never just an ethnic melting pot but also a musical one. Nowhere more so than in the music of Charles Ives where hymns, college football songs, folk tunes and patriotic anthems creatively collide head-on. Its eccentric richness includes avant-garde innovations – bitonality, tone clusters, twelve-tone rows – all arrived at independently and used not theoretically and reverentially but with a puckish sense of fun. Using a Mahler-sized orchestra the CBSO, under Ilan Volkov, fully embraced the cranky genius of his ‘Three Places in New England’ where each segment is a musical memory-scape. In the first the large string section, all whispers and susurrations, conjured up a misty landscape from which gradually emerged a slowly plodding march, Ives’ homage to the first black regiment of the Union A
  MARK BEBBINGTON, PRINCIPALS OF THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA                                            Cadogan Hall ***** Though there were only three composers named on the programme, there was in fact a fourth hovering over proceedings, and that was Brahms, exerting a posthumous presence not only over two fledgling composers, Ireland and Vaughan Williams, but also over a well-established composer nearing the end of his life, Elgar. In this wonderful programme in the acoustically- and comfort-friendly Cadogan Hall pianist Mark Bebbington and principals from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave heroically generous accounts of works from the first two above-named, and then an absolutely magnificent reading of Elgar’s Piano Quintet which in reminiscence disturbed my sleep and still haunts the memory. John Ireland’s Phantasie Trio in A minor, written according to the tenets of William Cobbett’s chamber music competition, requiring a compact, single-movement multi-structured
  The CBSO’s Choruses triumph in sublime Fauré Requiem CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Gabriel  Fauré  wrote that his Requiem was, “as GENTLE as I am myself”. The capital letters were his and perhaps the only time he ever, figuratively  speaking , raised his voice.  The ‘ Dies irae’ ( D ay of  W rath)  section is excised and with it  t he drama  which infuses  the three greatest Requiems.  Out goes Verdi’s  battering timpani and theatricality; the monumentality  and  grandiloquen ce  of Berlioz; the existential terror of the dying Mozart. Next to these titans  Fauré’ s modest work might seem cosy and a little twee. There have been attempts to beef it up. Sir Colin Davis’s 1985 recording  employed  a Wagnerian bass-baritone direct from Bayreuth and a renowned Queen of the Night as soprano soloist. I imagine  Fauré’ s reaction would have been a cry of “Quelle horreur!” T he French conductor  Alexandre Bloch’ s   approach was obvious but seldom attempted – let’s see what  Fauré  would have li
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Durufl é  & Poulenc: Choir of Trinity College Cambridge / Layton (Hyperion CD)  ★★★★★ Durufl é’s Requiem Op.9 usually appears on disc as the bottom half of a double bill with Faure’s far more famous Requiem, with both in full orchestral guise. Not so here, where  Durufl é gets sole billing with a very different setting of his choral masterpiece. He composed three v ersions of the work: for full orchestra (1947); small orchestra (1961); and this much  sparser and starker 1948 setting for choir and  organ, splendidly played here by Harrison Cole. The recording, made at the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, is phenomenal, a triumph for engineers David Hinnitt and Adrian Peacock who allow us to hear every strand of the young Choir’s impressive work under Stephen Layton, from the hushed ethereal ‘In Paradisum’ to the thrilling climax of the ‘Sanctus’. Cole is always on hand to add a telling touch of colour or underpinning th
                                                            DEATH IN VENICE                             Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff ***** Benjamin Britten’s final opera is a true summation of his life’s work, a life he knew was coming to an end as he struggled determinedly to complete the piece. This was a deeply-felt love-offering to his partner Peter Pears, and so perfectly is the writing tailored to that tenor’s unique vocal qualities that subsequent performers have found the task daunting. Not so Mark le Brocq, whose assumption of the role in this Welsh National Opera production grows movingly through this lengthy portrayal of the moral and intellectual disintegration of Gustav von Aschenbach, become creatively arid as the protagonist writer in the Thomas Mann novella which is the basis of Myfanwy Piper’s adroit libretto. The opera also bravely confronts Britten’s own homoeroticism, not least when roused by young boys. Aschenbach is increasingly o
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Donizetti, ‘L’esule di Roma’: Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, Britten Sinfonia / Carlo Rizzi (Opera Rara 2 CDs) ★★★★★ The creative team at Opera Rara are experts at mining gems from the archive of rarely-performed Donizetti operas – the 27 th  so far – and have unearthed another sparkling example here. The city in ‘L’esule di Roma (‘The Exile of Rome’) is Imperial Rome and the exile is Settimio the lover of Argelia. She is the daughter of Senator Murena whose unjust act plagues his conscience and ends in madness. The opera was premiered at La Scala Milan in 1828 but Murena’s psychological collapse in Act 2 prefigures Donizetti’s mad scenes in his 1830s operas, most famously the heroine’s in ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. Murena is one of Donizetti’s great bass-baritone roles and Nicola Alaimo is splendid in voice – smoothly produced even under stress with no hectoring – and in portrayal of a decent man who has betrayed his values. Serg
  The CBSO Benevolent Fund Concert CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ There could never have been any doubt of Sakari Oramo’s credentials as an Elgarian – he was awarded the Elgar Medal in 2008 for his efforts in advancing the composer’s music. His 2014 recording of 'Cockaigne', with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, is a personal favourite and Oramo’s grip on its phantasmagoric moods, variety of tone and instant switches between hearty bluster and romantic musing were demonstrated in a brilliantly played CBSO performance. Those difficult to negotiate mood changes start in the first few bars; here it was if we had access to Elgar’s thoughts. The “Stout and steaky” aspects of the overture were rollickingly well done, the musical equivalent of cockneys, thumbs in waistcoat and arms akimbo, strutting down the old Kent Road. The brass and percussion relished the military march but the beautiful melody – sounding like an early draft of the violin concerto – was caressed lovingly b