WNO: Love’s Poisoned Chalice

Milton Keynes Theatre, 21-22 March 2017

Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbe is hardly a regular part of any company’s repertoire so it was all the more exciting to see it for the first time in a magnificent presentation from WNO. The composer did not really intend it to be staged and it is closer to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or possibly Britten’s Rape of Lucretia in its use of narrators and chorus to move the narrative forward, acting as both a framing and distancing device. Moreover, Polly Graham’s visually stunning production uses the chorus as the setting, their fluid movement shaping the spaces in which the drama unfolds. Added to this some of the most effective lighting, by Tim Mitchell, that we have seen in a very long time and the whole was frequently mesmerising in its impact.

The story of Tristan and Iseult is familiar to most of us from Wagner, but Martin takes a different approach, one that uses different elements of the myth and brings a much strong ethical tone to the outcome. Mark could have killed them but chooses not to do so; the lovers never actually consummate their desire, dying as chaste as they lived, though overcome by passion to the point of madness.

All of this in couched in the most refined of musical scores, using a small string ensemble placed in the centre of the stage under the deft control of James Southall.

The cast had a number of very familiar voices. Tom Randle was a fine if angst ridden Tristan, the sensitivity of his acting matching that of his voice. Caitlin Hulcup was a statuesque Iseult, able to hold a pose in telling but naturalistic fashion, and a beautiful voice to match her presence.

It was good to see and hear Catherine Wyn-Rogers in the small part of Iseult’s Mother, the warmth of her tone shining through as ever. Martin writes for a myriad of small parts, some of whom emerge briefly from the chorus, others being named individuals who disappear as quickly as they came. Needless to say with the quality of the WNO chorus there was not a weak link here and Gareth Dafydd Morris made a very strong impact with the beauty of line he produced as Kaherdin and I am sure, as a recent member of WNO, we shall see much more of him.

I am not sure if the work was being recorded. It certainly deserves to be far better known than it is at present.

The following night’s revival of La Boheme may not have come up to the heights of Martin, but it was well sung throughout with Matteo Lippi and Jessica Muirhead, as Rudolfo and Mimi, in well matched romantic voices which filled the theatre with ease and beauty of line. Lauren Fagan is a brash Musetta, with Gary Griffiths a highly convincing Marcello.

While the production has some telling moments – Rudolfo return’s Mimi’s key to encourage her to tell her story – it too often moves away from its initial naturalism. Characters in what is supposed to be a bitterly cold winter, frequently take their coats off, and there is little difference between inner and outer scenes.

Manlio Benzi in the pit had a sharp sense of Puccini’s line and tempi were always convincing. A most pleasant evening on the ear if not always on the eye.

 

Arensky Chamber Orchestra: SEA FEVER

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, Friday 11 March 2017

A new orchestra in a new music venue, with an adventurous approach to programming. As we entered the Jerwood Gallery, we were gently engulfed in the sound of the sea breaking against the shore, and this image was to stay with us throughout the evening. Rather than simply play through works by Debussy and Britten, sandwiching the new pieces in between – as would have been the conventional approach – we were given a sequence of musical events which flowed effortlessly into each other.

The first half opened with the first of five interludes based on lines from Sea Fever, specially composed for the event by Steffan Rees. The setting for two cellos reflected on grey mist on the sea’s face before a seamless transition into Dawn and Sunday Morning from Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. What was immediately obvious was that, while we were seeing a chamber orchestra, the sound within the close acoustic of the Jerwood was wonderfully immediate, with the rolling brass and bell for Sunday morning ringing out with spectacular effect.

The second new interlude, the wind’s song, seemed to take up the emotional intensity of the Britten and extend it, drawing on the same tonal palette. On paper a transition at this point to Debussy might look difficult but the hushed opening of La Mer was given great clarity, with nuanced playing from the harp. It was easy to see the connection then to the flung spray and the blown spume with its energetic forces and brittle edges, calming eventually back to the warmth of the cellos.

Moonlight brought the first half to a conclusion but even the interval had something different to offer in the form of a new cocktail. In keeping with the sea theme, our glasses had samphire rather than lemon and the subtle saltiness was remarkably effective.

There was a romantic intensity to a grey dawn breaking, as we returned, before the second part of La Mer and the Storm sequence from Peter Grimes. The intensity of attack here was shattering given the confined space and precision of the playing. Steffan Rees’ final interlude the lonely sea and the sky served as a bridge to the concluding item, with a gentler opening giving way to a full romantic – almost Mahlerian – enthusiasm. The third part of La Mer brought the evening to a close and a heartfelt desire that this should not be the only occasion that we are able to hear the Arensky Chamber Orchestra.

The Jerwood proved itself to be a valuable performing space for smaller ensembles, though the limited audience capacity will always be a problem without significant subsidy if prices are not to be outside of the reach of normal concert goers. Let us hope that the quality of this event enables the support for the orchestra to continue – Will Kunhardt and his young musicians certainly deserve it.

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 5 March 2017

Earlier in the day, 500 children had sat in on the rehearsal for this concert and been enthralled by Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No1 – and understandably so. Having a Romanian conductor, Christian Mandeal, conducting Romanian music is still a rarity even today. It was easy to see why the work had been chosen as a showcase for classical music to a young audience, for it is alive with colour and wonderfully intricate detail. The warmly rich solo viola part suddenly lifts out of the orchestra as a whole, and later the solo piccolo thrills as it cuts through the weight of the whole orchestra.

This wildly romantic work is full of heady rhythmic subtleties which are electrifying.  Would that he heard music of this intensity and sheer visceral enjoyment more often.

If the rest of the afternoon did not quite live up to the excitement of the opening this was not the fault of the works themselves or the performances. Chloe Hanslip was the soloist in Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Though heralded as a genius in his youth, he is best known today as the writer of a large number of film scores. The concerto is based on a number of these and while its romantic melodies are engaging it never really rises to the emotional impact it promises at the start. The second movement in particular tends to drift rather than move forward purposefully, though the work is redeemed by the more dynamic pirate music of the finale. Chloe Hanslip played with intensity and convincing attention to detail.

It is always interesting hearing Elgar performed by conductors who come to the scores from an entirely different tradition. Sakari Oramo’s performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra have often been revelatory. If Christian Mandeal’s approach to the First Symphony was not quite in this class he brought a beautifully developed sense of line and much lovely phrasing in the construction of long paragraphs. He was aware of the smallest of details, allowing tiny moments to blossom – a sudden fleet bassoon line; a falling brashness from the trombones – and capture the imagination in ways we may not have heard before. The second movement scampered alarmingly with a real hint of menace in the march sections. There was a glorious introspection in the slow movement with hints of Wagner and Mahler, the composer looking in both directions while taking his own course.

The finale blazed as expected and brought the afternoon to a triumphant conclusion. More Enescu next season?

The final concert this season is on Sunday 26 March with works by Kodaly, Schumann and Scriabin.

 

Musicians of All Saints

St Michael’s Church, Lewes, Saturday 4 March 2017

St Michael’s is a fine venue for chamber music, almost too close for a full string orchestra but one which allows the warmth and detail of scoring to have maximum impact.

The evening opened with Bach’s Third Brandenburg concerto using reduced forces which encouraged bright rhythms and a dancelike quality throughout.

Robin Milford is not a familiar name today but the two pieces we heard both witnessed to a sad neglect of a fine composer.

The Concertino in E dates from 1955 and each of the three movements opens with a piano solo. Margaret Fingerhut has worked closely with the Musicians of All Saints as was evident from the easy rapport between orchestra and soloist. The work is openly romantic and the writing for strings confident in its expression. The central Romanza has a haunting melody which is richly orchestrated, and as such deserves to be far better known. The concluding Rondo is rather more on the wild side if not quite as moving as the earlier two movements.

Fishing by Moonlight is marginally better known, again deeply romantic, though there is little obvious link between what we hear and the title. The calm opening builds to a surprisingly loud impact and the danced central section makes a subtle contrast to the outer sections. The work is available on Hyperion and it would be good to think that others, as well as the Robin Milford Trust, might take up these works.

Bartok’s Divertimento for string orchestra is a much tougher item. There is a fierce intensity to the opening Allegro non troppo which gives way to the intense, quietly oppressive, Molto adagio. If the mood lightens a little for the final Allegro assai there is still a hint of menace behind the melody.

Leader Sophia Bartlette provided the solo violin parts in the Divertimento with a pleasing sense of attack and phrasing.

Peter Copley had spoken at the beginning about the relationship of light music to serious music, and the continuing confusion about the terminology. Robin Milford’s works could easily be dismissed as light music when what the critic really means is they are actually accessible on a first hearing!  Peter Copley’s own scores have the virtue of accessibility but should not be dismissed as light as a result. His new Tango is a most enjoyable piece but I suspect rather more challenging for the performers than it sounds for the audience. The tight rhythms and constant subtle changes of pace are exhilarating and were obviously enjoyed by both orchestra and pianist. Margaret Fingerhut did not need to change into her sparkling silver sequins to add a Latin tang to the event – it was more than obvious from the sparkle of the music.

The next concert at St Michael’s will be on 23 April at 4.30pm and will present the winners of the Brighton 2017 Springboard Festival.

www.mas-lewes.co.uk   www.robinmilfordtrust.org.uk

ENO: The Winter’s Tale

London Coliseum, Monday 27 February 2017

When the RSC stages The Winter’s Tale it normally runs over three hours. Ryan Wigglesworth’s new opera based on the play runs for under two hours, so we are immediately aware that this is going to be a highly focused, not to say intense, adaptation of the play – and so it proves to be. Gone are the comic characters, all of the songs and incidental music, dancing is reduced to a brief aside. The focus is entirely on the impact of jealousy in both Leontes and Polixenes.

Vicki Mortimer’s high walled setting constantly encloses and cuts off the characters from each other, and placing both Sicilia and Bohemia under military rule gives little sense of contrast in the second act. If anything, the music underlines the unifying factors rather than the differences between the two countries.

The conclusion moves away from Shakespeare. Though Hermione returns to life there is little sense of resurrection or restoration here, and the final image is uncomfortably spectral, as the dead Mamillius wanders slowly off stage.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s score mirrors this intensity of approach with music that is frequently edgy and uncomfortable. There are few lyrical moments, even in Bohemia, and characters rarely reflect on their positions, though Iain Paterson’s finely drawn Leontes is allowed two more-extended introspective moments.

Sophie Bevan makes what she can of Hermione though the trial scene gives her nowhere near enough emotional scope for us to empathise more than at the most superficial level. Samantha Price makes more impact as Perdita though sixteen years living rurally is glossed over.

The concentration of the text makes Polixenes a more important protagonist, strongly sung by Leigh Melrose. His – spoken – assault on Florizel becomes one of the strongest moments of the evening, drawing parallels with the first act in an almost identical setting.

Smaller parts are well rounded but the most interesting musical innovation comes with the chorus. There is, of course, no chorus in Shakespeare. Verdi had to interpolate choruses into his settings and Wigglesworth does the same. They are very effective, particularly the protest for Hermione, which has no place in the original but here reflects current political unease very succinctly.

Rory Kinnear’s production is masterly in its understatement and naturalism. Even in moments of high tension he manages to maintain a convincing sense of normality taken to the edge. He brings all his experience of working in the theatre to ensure that even the most unlikely events convince and that emotions are always credible. It is a remarkable debut and he will surely be asked again – and soon!

ENO: The Pirates of Penzance

London Coliseum, 23 February 2017

Andrew Shore as the Major General in the Pirates of Penzance, performed by the English National Opera. 7th Feb 2017, London Coliseum, Britain.

Fifty years ago every local operatic society relied on Gilbert & Sullivan for their daily bread. Today it is difficult to find individual performances which may account for the high levels of surprise and delight in the audience enjoying this first revival of Mike Leigh’s production.

By taking the work at face value – no knowing asides or updating – the comedy actually works far better, and, sung by operatic voices, the music holds its own with ease.

The casting was different enough to make for an interesting evening even for those of us who had greatly enjoyed the original outing in 2015. David Webb has a light lyric tenor which he uses intelligently as Frederic, and his slightly reserved presence is perfectly in character. Soraya Mafi by contrast is a highly excitable Mabel but one for whom the Bellinian coloratura holds no terrors. Their duet Ah leave me not to pine was genuinely moving. Ashley Riches is a wonderful cardboard cut-out as the Pirate King, all swagger and attitude, and is surrounded by a likeable group of cut-throats.

John Tomlinson as the Sergeant of the Police in the Pirates of Penzance, performed by the English National Opera. 7th Feb 2017, London Coliseum, Britain.

To have the finest Wotan of his generation as the Sergeant of Police was a gem, and John Tomlinson did not disappoint. Totally in character, as one would expect, his nuances with the text were constantly alive and apt, and his voice, needless to say, better than one would dare to expect.

Lucy Schaufer returned as a sympathetic Ruth and Andrew Shore again relished the part of the Major General.

Gareth Jones moved things along swiftly in the pit and it was good yet again to enjoy Sullivan’s score from a full orchestra not a pit band.

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, Wednesday 22 February 2017

The UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Piano Concerto No2 may have accounted for the rather thin audience but those who stayed away missed one of the finest Bruckner performances I can recall in many years.

Rihm’s work fluctuates between tonal and atonal sentiments meaning that the ear is never quite at ease with the developmental line. There are many quasi-lyrical passages, and the gentler sections often come close to moving the listener but then the underlying tension works against this. The snare-drum towards the end brings a rare moment of consolidation to a work which can seem to be drifting away from us. The piano part is fiercely demanding with hardly a moment of respite for the soloist. In this capacity Nicolas Hodges was a tireless enthusiast and at times came close to convincing us that the work was greater than the sum of its parts. Lothar Koenigs brought sensitivity to many passages but could do little to enthuse us about the whole.

Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony after the interval was another matter altogether. There was superb dynamic range and consistent sensitivity towards the clarity of the score. The second movement had an Elgarian opacity which I can’t recall ever being aware of before. It was full of light and joy, with no sense of the ponderous weight that so many bring to Bruckner. The drive and enthusiasm in the Scherzo was matched by an almost playful approach to the finale.

Thankfully, being a BBC performance, it will be broadcast on Tuesday 28 February and I for one will be listening again.

Eat, Drink, Love!

Opera House, Wetherspoon, Tunbridge Wells, Sunday 19 February 2017

The annual Sunday on which Tunbridge Wells’s glorious Opera House reverts to its musical roots and sets aside its current pub incarnation is always a  festive event. All credit to Wetherspoon for facilitating it. This year Merry Opera Company’s new show is revue rather than opera. And an engaging melange of musical theatre, songs from various genres and – of course –  opera it turns out to be.

An accomplished and versatile quartet – Andrea Tweedale, Gemma Morsley, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter and Matthew Quirk – shift between genres so adeptly that it feels as if we’re moved from classical (Mozart’s Un’aura amorosa nicely sung by tenor Olsworth-Peter, to Horrible Histories at a stroke. A rousing rendering of The Roast Beef of Old England complete with mezzo-soprano Morsley, sporting a colander-crown  on her head as Elizabeth I, ends the first half. In between the extremes are numbers such as a pleasing account of Purcell’s If Music Be the Food of Love from soprano Tweedale, and bass-baritone Matthew Quirk, having fun with Ted Waite’s I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana.

Several things strike me about this show. First, it’s interesting to hear musical theatre numbers sung without radio mics by trained opera singers. I have long contended that there is no valid distinction between musical theatre and opera. It is all simply musical drama and any differences are often very blurred. Merry Opera’s take on the material in this show cheerfully reinforces that.

Second, it’s splendid to hear such a variety. Some of it is familiar. I have sung the surprisingly difficult The Banquet Fugue from John Rutter’s The Reluctant Dragon myself and it’s a pleasure to hear it done with such slickness and panache. What a stylistic contrast though with Harry Champion’s music hall number Oh! That Gorgonzola Cheese or Quirk and Morsley being  wittily outrageous in the well known Have Some Madeira M’Dear  by Flanders and Swann, or Quirk and Olsworth-Peter in a dead-pan take on I Gave My Love a Cherry. The four of them do as well with American-style 1930s close harmony as with Baroque and Bizet’s Omelette Quartet with which the show ends is entertaining.

Third, the choreography (by Carole Todd) provides quite a lot of clever grouping and movement so that the show works reasonably well visually as well as aurally.

There is a problem, though with the linking narrative with which John Ramster, director has tried far too hard. The show is themed on three inter-related human activities and some of the dialogue and flirting amongst characters between sung numbers is excruciatingly contrived and hammy, The show would be better with much less of that and an additional sung item in each half.

Moreover, the show takes a while to get going and some of the singing is wobbly in the first fifteen minutes – or at least it was at the performance I saw. The second half is both better structured and more assured.

Generally speaking though, Eat, Drink, Love! was a very pleasant way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

Susan Elkin

 

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Brighton Dome, 5 February 2017

THOMAS-CARROLL

Thomas Carroll, looking as if he’s about to win a snooker tournament in a snazzy red waistcoat, has a knack of bending almost double to coax intricately nuanced pianissimo playing from his players. It’s effective too. Almost all the playing in this very pleasant concert was sensitive and well balanced.

After a momentarily ragged start Mozart’s K201, with all its sophisticated simplicity, soon settled into a suitably crisp, sparkling opening allegro with the following movements in careful contrast, For both this, and the Haydn which came next, the Brighton Philharmonic was reduced to just 36 players – strings with two horns and two oboes ensuring that the mood remained light, tight and classical.

The Haydn C major concerto (rediscovered as recently as 1961) is a resolutely cheerful work and multi-talented Carroll conducting from his cello appeared to smile from the sheer joy of the music almost continually. He achieved a fine rapport with the orchestra and his cello sound was lushly mellow especially in the beautiful Adagio and the well controlled Allegro Molto finale.

And so to the concluding Mendelssohn Italian Symphony for a happy ending to a sunny concert – and a few more players and instruments added to the mix. The opening was lively and incisive with some clearly articulated string work in the busy passages which typify much of Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing. One or two wobbly moments in the third movement were soon forgotten once we reached the Saltanella and the glorious conclusion which was played with panache.

Susan Elkin

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, 4 February 2017

J Lill

John Lill CBE has been president of the Maidstone Symphony Orchestra since 1980 and his association with it goes ten years further back when he played his first concert with them, shortly after winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. To this day, he generously plays an occasional concert with MSO and unassuming as he is, his presence in the hall has a palpable effect on both players and audience. He seems to bring out an extra edge in a band which always delivers competently but on this occasion they surpassed even their own high standards.

Lill’s account of Beethoven’s third piano concerto was unshowy but intense, the concentration showing only in a slight working of his mouth. It’s a treat to hear the concerto played at a speed which allows us to hear every note of Beethoven’s glorious C minor detail – a refreshing contrast to the usual prestissimo gallop most conductors want to impose on it. The triplets just before the end came across in this performance as an intelligent question and answer dialogue between piano and orchestra. Other high spots included the long cadenza full of virtuosic tension at the end of the first movement, which had me (and most of the rest the audience) on the edge of our seats, and the exquisite lyricism in the largo.

The Beethoven was sandwiched between Weber’s chirpy Oberon overture and Brahms’s most magnificent symphony – the Fourth and last. The Weber presents a challenging opening with its horn solo and muted strings – all very exposed before it leaps away into the first dance tune. It isn’t the easiest way to start a concert but it came off adequately.

And by the time we reached the vibrant warmth of the Brahms, all nervousness had gone and the John Lill effect had worked its magic.  From the exuberant precision of the opening allegro through the delicacy (all that pizzicato!) in the middle movement to the initially ponderous, grandiloquent fourth movement, it was glorious. I once heard the late, great Antony Hopkins (the musicologist not the actor) give a talk for children about this last movement and he told them to remember “B-R-A-H-M-S Spells Brahms” and explained how to listen for the opening statement in various forms for the rest of the movement. If only there had been more children and young people in the audience at this concert to hear this enjoyable account of it.

For various reasons this was the first MSO concert I’ve managed to get to this season and I’m struck afresh by the quality and freshness. I think it is scaling new heights of achievement. Andrew Pearson is certainly the most charismatic leader the orchestra has had in a while and I’m sure he is part of the reason. The string sound is rich and rarely falters and – among other fine performers – Anna Binney, principal flautist – more than deserved the applause Brian Wright directed towards her at the end.

Susan Elkin