SOUTHBANK CENTRE INTERNATIONAL ORGAN SERIES 2017-18 2 – ANNE PAGE

ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL 21 November 2017

A large audience gathered for this latest instalment in the series which deliberately presents different aspects of the organ repertoire by performers who are experts in their particular field. For this concert Anne Page brought her experience and research to present an interpretation of the complete Art of Fugue by JS Bach.

On this occasion I took advantage of the pre-concert talk in which Anne Page was in conversation
with the curator of the RFH organ, William McVicker, about the work and different opinions about what instrument it was written for and the enigmatic way in which the published work ends. This was a fascinating talk, which could have gone on much longer, with excellent musical illustrations from the RFH’s organ scholar David Thomas. It certainly helped me in my appreciation of the music which followed.

Throughout the evening Anne Page demonstrated her commitment and understanding of this music and its relation to other genres, notably the French style of organ music from the likes of de Grigny, whom Bach admired. Her well chosen registrations and her decision to emphasise different interpretations to group the movements made for a very cohesive and immersive experience. The ease with which lines were performed on the pedals was very impressive. Clear delineation of voices (by registration) and careful articulation in each fugue made it possible to appreciate the structures and to attempt to follow some of the thematic material, although at times this was not easy.

The craftsmanship, mathematical genius and beauty of this music is without doubt. This organ is a wonderful vehicle for it. Anne Page’s knowledge, commitment, concentration and overall musicianship was impressive throughout. I found myself, at times, completely drawn in by the music. Unfortunately for this listener the overall experience was just too much. As the programme notes mentioned, the composer would not have envisaged a complete performance such as this, and for me, and I suspect others, despite wanting to enjoy the totality of this music, it didn’t really work.

Perhaps elements of the talk could have been interspersed with the music, or some contrasting music inserted partway through. I certainly would have welcomed some relief from what became a rather  cerebral and overwhelming experience. After the concluding “unfinished” movement (with a realised ending by Paul Binski) the evening ended with a beautifully understated rendition of Bach’s last composition, dictated during his final illness, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit.

The next concert in the series is on 26th February – a varied programme from Daniel Cook.

Stephen Page

 

ENO: Marnie

London Coliseum , 18 November 2017

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie should have been a great success. Everything was in its favour. The casting was strong, the composer is one of the foremost of his generation and greatly admired, the designs and costumes were strikingly impressive – in fact everything, on a superficial level, seemed fine. The real problem was with the adaptation of Winston Graham’s novel and the persona of the heroine herself.

The programme notes implied that Marnie has an enigmatic quality; that she is a sister to Melisande or Lulu. However, both of these – and many more – are strongly characterised to the point where we are swept away by their impact, even if at the end of the evening we know no more of them than we did at the outset. Marnie remains an enigma, but one who rouses little interest or sympathy. No matter how much new information about her comes to us as the evening unfolds, we are never drawn to empathise with her, even in the attempted rape scene at the end of the first half. She remains an outsider but one whom we can all too easily ignore.

The large cast create a highly credible world within which the narrative unfolds. The chorus are particularly important here and the sense of London in the late 1950s is extremely impressive. Arianne Phillips’ costumes are spot on – the four shadow Marnies gloriously apt – and the shifting visual world moves effortlessly between venues and between the real and illusory. All of this is excellently done. Michael Mayer’s direction within this is naturalistic for most of the intimate scenes but allows the choreography to open out the points of reflection. Here Marnie’s moments of self-reflection should be keys to the work as a whole but they hardly ever move beyond the banal.

Sasha Cooke looks splendid as Marnie and sings with finesse, though there are occasions when the text gets lost. The three older women – Kathleen Wilson as Marnie’s mother, Diana Montague as Lucy and Lesley Garrett as Mrs Rutland – were classic exemplars of singing actors who convey the whole text with ease as well as producing fine vocal sound and incisive characterisation.

Daniel Okulitch looked suave enough as Mark but occasionally lacked impact – a fault which may ease as the run progresses. The operatic version makes more of Terry than either of the sources and was sympathetically louche in James Laing’s hands.

Martyn Brabbins brought a great deal of detail to light from his large orchestra and his handling of the narrative was always well focused.

The first night was ecstatically received and the production moves to the Met next year where it is sure to be equally popular. As the excellent choral passages and much of the orchestration suggested, Nico Muhly is a natural opera composer. Hopefully he will soon find a subject which grasps the attention of the audience as well as his fine abstract qualities as a composer.

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra – Remembrance Day

The Dome, Brighton, 12 November 2017

Loosely, but not aggressively, themed for Remembrance Day this concert gave us the works of one composer whose pacificism drove him across the Atlantic, one who served as a medical orderly in World War 1 and one who was killed on the Somme.

Britten’s D Minor Violin Concerto was completed during the composer’s voluntary exile and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1940. Matthew Trussler, modestly looking like a half dressed, rapidly growing schoolboy in a tight white shirt, played it with verve, maturity and impressive control. It was easy, in this performance, to hear menace and the horror of war in some of the abrupt harmonies and desperate sadness in the lyrical passages. The War Requiem might lie twenty two years into the future but the anger and distress at the futility of it all is clearly there already. Barry Wordsworth ensured this came out strongly although he also, wisely, allowed Trussler his head. The playing in the long cadenza was edge-of-the-seat stuff with exquisitely accurate trills on harmonics and the unusual technique of left hand pizzicato with simultaneous legato bowing. Even the rising and descending scales, of which there are lots for both soloist and orchestra, were made to sound musically compelling here.

The other long work in the programme was Vaughan Williams’s strident, angry fourth symphony which dates from 1935. Wordsworth leant on all the big RVM themes and played up the syncopated passages in the last movement to enjoyable effect. The central scherzo was evocative and carefully managed. For this final work in the programme the orchestra was fully warmed up.

Also appropriate in its wistful way was George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody which opened the second half. Plenty of yearning, lyrical beauty came through some fine playing.

This concert opened with Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugues (more D minor) which was an odd choice. Yes, it makes a splendid opening – all drama and semiquavers – but it’s hard to listen to it, I’m afraid, without thinking of Fantasia and  irreverently expecting Mickey Mouse to appear. Moreover some of the entries were a bit ragged in the first few moments although by the time we got to the fugue, inspiringly started by the violas, it was all sailing along grandiloquently. If, however, we were meant – in part – to be focusing on Remembrance Day then this work seemed inappropriate.

Two further small observations about this concert, one positive, one less so. First, it’s grand to see and hear a selection of works which make such good use of the tuba and it’s fun to see the enormous mute going in and out of the bell. Well done,   Principal Tuba. Second, I wish they’d sort out that percussive whistle which whispers in the Dome when it’s quiet. You could hear it all too clearly during the Britten. I don’t know whether it’s the heating, air conditioning or something else but it’s always there and needs dealing with.

Susan Elkin

 

Interview Concert: Duo Arnicans

St Paul’s Cafe Worthing, 2 November 2017

An unmistakeable magic was weaved into the sound waves and social atmosphere of the latest International Interview Concert at St Paul’s Cafe Worthing. DUO Arnicans’ new programme of seven singing cello pieces, played without a break, took the packed audience into a dream. And then their stirring Brahms Sonata No 2 for Cello and Piano turned from romance into passion the ambience of their connection with their avid listeners.

Cellist Florian Arnicans played from memory the first-half sequence of song and melody beyond words. Suddenly unaccompanied, he played cello legend Pablo Casals’ Song Of the Birds, riveting the full house in his own realisation of the unpublished score after listening himself to an original Casals recording. There were unexpected and revelatory instrumental effects. Then, out of the silence after its concluding sky-high trill, came pianist Arta Arnicane’s stealing steps of the following Habanera by Ravel , creating a halting expectation and sensuality that shot through the audience.

These top-notch young artistes from Zurich ? Florian a German, his spouse Arta a Latvian ? asserted categorically the level of artistry and performance in these innovative, interactive and inclusive concerts. This being the 11th in five years, the Interview Concerts in Worthing are already a precious biannual advancement of the classical music offering in West Sussex.

The musicians’ verbal communication skills in the interviewing lay another dimension on the audience experience. Arta and Florian brought humour, wisdom, insight and candidness in this additional connective and intimate showcase. Questions also came from the audience, who relished the fun when the organisers’ gifts to the artistes came to be opened, so capping entertainment in a compelling combination.

Music – ‘Programme Canción’: “The Cello Sings” – JS Bach, Arioso; Schubert, Ständchen; Mendelssohn, Lied ohne Worte Op.109 (Song without Words);  Dvorak, Melodie; Pablo Casals, Song of the Birds; Ravel, Pièce en forme de Habanera; Josef Suk, Serenade. After the interval: Brahms, Sonata for Cello and Piano No 2 in F Opus 99.

Richard Amey

 

Swansong

Milton Court Studio, 4 November 2017

Iain Burnside is a commensurate communicator. Witness his often quirky, but always fascinating, programmes on Radio 3 over the years and his 5 star piano playing especially when he’s accompanying and particularly in lieder. Lucky are the students who study with him at Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he is a professor.

Swansong is, at one level, a warm and vibrant recital of Schubert’s last fourteen songs which the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger hooked together and marketed – very profitably – as Schwanengesang after Schubert’s death. At another level it’s a piece of musical theatre. Six actors deliver short monologues between the songs so that suddenly we see them from many different angles like a cubist painting. At a third level it’s a real joy to see yet another work devised and directed by Burnside in which the Guildhall musicians work with their counterparts in drama to present something which is as integrated as it is enlightening.

The piece is scored for a singer, a pianist and six actors. In fact here we get two excellent pianists (Michael Pandya and Dylan Perez) and four singers alongside six actors playing characters who all have a view about the composer and/or his songs over nearly two centuries – Brahms, Ivor Gurney, Haslinger, Franz von Schober, a cleaner and a modern student.

Harriet Burns, soprano, brings lots of warmth and passion along with a knowing twinkle in both eye and voice to the opening song Liebesbotschaft. James Robinson’s tenor and both baritones, Andrew Hamilton and Henri Tikkanen pack plenty of drama and colour especially in Die Stadt. All four voices blend well in the final Die Taubenpost.

Each of the actors does a fine job too. Burnside has ignored conventions of period so that all the speech is very modern, along with the costumes. It reminds you – rather neatly – that nothing changes and yes, the laundry maid would have known all about Schubert’s sickness once she started finding mercury stains (“they mix it with lard and rub it on the sores”) on the sheets.  Jordan Angell’s Haslinger is a spivy type who tells the audience to “cut me some slack, will you? And Declan Baxter’s Gurney, complete with authentic Gloucestershire accent, locked in City of London Mental Hospital, is both appealing and pitiful. The trouble with this approach is that without a programme you might struggle to work out who is who but it’s a minor gripe

Overall this is a pleasingly original, high quality hour of music and drama – not quite a concert, not quite musical theatre and not quite an illustrated talk. Maybe Burnside has invented a new performance art form?

SE

Pinocchio: Jasmin Vardimon Company

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 27 October 2017

This show is rivetingly original. Staged in the sort of dim light usually reserved for puppetry, it includes a silhouette sequence, work with trapeze, bungee and flying. A fascinating sequence involves six performers, hands linked, rolling in turn slowly through 360 degrees to represent a huge cog wheel. Then there are two people chatting animatedly in a restaurant – their faces painted on to feet with toes waggling expressively and hands (two other performers behind?) acting like mad. Moving lights work to terrific effect too and ultra violet technology may have been around for a long time but it still impresses – here three pairs of ultra-violet lit hands represent a huge talking face.

 Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company @ Stour Centre, Ashford Kent.

Pinocchio is, of course, a puppet and Jasmin Vardimon has returned to the unsentimental tenor of Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 book rather than allowing herself to be side tracked by any of the many interpretations since, including Disney. This Pinocchio, whose movements remain floppy and puppet-like throughout – as he is manipulated by almost everyone he meets – is discovering what it means to be human rather than turning into a real boy.  And Vardimon choreographs exquisitely. No one who sees this show is going to forget the monster tormenting Pinocchio formed from the linked undulating arms of a line of performers.

The music which accompanies all this is borrowed from many sources to suit the mood of each episode. We leap effortlessly from Beyonce to Shostakovich and from The De Leeuwin Dutch Street Organ to accordion music from the Faroe Islands among many other things. Steven Glasser’s recorded narration grates, however. The movement in this show tells the story expertly and needs no words but it’s a minor objection

Jasmin Vardimon must be one of Britain’s most talented choreographers and educators. Her company, based since 2012 at the Jasmin Vardimon Production Space at Ashford, Kent, is supported by Ashford Borough Council, Ashford Leisure Trust and Arts Council England. And Pinocchio is co-produced by Gulbenkian Theatre and Kent County Council along with Sadler’s Wells. It is most encouraging to see such a splendid dance company getting the support it so richly deserves. I was also delighted to see hundreds of enthusiastic dance students and young dancers in the audience at Sadler’s Wells.

Susan Elkin

 

 

ENO: Rodelinda

London Coliseum, 26 October, 2017

Richard Jones is becoming as much a key element for ENO today as David Poutney was a generation ago. The wide range of his productions are all united in a fierce concentration on detail and a deep sense of humanity. Singers rarely stand and sing, unless they are addressing the audience directly, and even within the strictures of opera seria he generates a sense of heightened normality which carries the narrative forward rather than halting it every time an aria pops up.

All of this is very obvious in his presentation of Handel’s Rodelinda where the story line may stretch the imagination but the relationships and the emotional truth of the characters is never in doubt.

Rebecca Evans returns as Rodelinda and her nobility is ever present, along with a wonderful flexibility of musical line, regardless of what Richard Jones is asking her to do. Tim Mead as her husband Bertarido is new to the production but creates a complex individual, splendidly uneasy in the bar-room scene, yet heroic when the need arises.

There is subtle comedy in the work provided by Susan Bickley’s Eduige and Neal Davies blood-thirsty Garibaldo, and Matt Casey’s unspeaking Flavio is a visual delight throughout. Christopher Lowrey’s Unulfo is regularly on the receiving end from the royals around him but his finely focused counter-tenor made the part seem more eloquent than maybe Handel intended.

Juan Sancho’s Grimoaldo seemed petulant at first but as the evening developed his emotional turmoil became more overt and he created a fine range of emotional states.

Christian Curnyn was once more in the pit, maintaining excellent pace and bite for what is, after all, a long evening. Thankfully, in the hands of these performers, it never seemed so.

 

 

 

WNO: Die Fledermaus

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 19 October 2017

John Copley’s production of Die Fledermaus moves the time scale forward, but not by very much. The designs are gracefully art deco but the costumes retain the opulence – and perhaps the decadence – of the late nineteenth century. No attempt is made to up-date the work or give it any spurious relevance. As such it is a triumph, allowing the score to radiate its charm throughout, and the singers to show just what wonderful music this is.

Judith Howard’s Rosalinde is a woman of the world, only too aware of her husband’s short-comings and more than up to his schemes. Her act two czardas is thrown off with aplomb and totally secure at the top. By contrast Rhian Lois’ Adele has the coloratura for the laughing song but is wily enough to convince the most hardened of old rogues. There was a wonderful moment when she is talking to her sister Olga and they both slip into Welsh accents!

Of the men, Mark Stone’s Eisenstein reminded me of Hugh Bonneville, caught somewhere between Downton Abbey and W1A. He sings with relish and his comic timing is equally impressive. There was strong support from Ben McAteer as Falke and James Cleverton as Frank. Paul Charles Clarke’s Alfred was gloriously over the top, the sob in the voice reminding us of every second-rate tenor we have had to sit through. Anna Harvey is a surprisingly young Orlovsky but very much in control of events.

The chorus were as fine as expected but it was the conducting of James Southall which really raised the whole level of the evening. After hours of Andre Rieu it was such a treat to hear Strauss as, one suspects, Strauss intended. The rhythms taught yet flexible, the sense of élan always in place and the tempi perfect. This was the second outing for this production and it should certainly live to see another day – or two!

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, Maidstone, Saturday 14 October 2017

The new season is built around a series of concerti all of which will be performed by young professionals, often at the start of what we hope will be long careers.

For this first concert, Savitri Grier was the eloquent soloist for Mendelssohn’s ever popular violin concerto, finding a gentle melancholy in the opening passages but a real sense of bite in the cadenza and unexpected sweetness in the unfolding melody of the slow movement. Brian Wright’s approach to the work was more reflective than is often the case, with a greater sense of waltz rhythms in the slow movement and introspection in the first. Any shadows were however blown away with the sparkle of the fleet finale, hinting throughout at the other world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The concerto was sandwiched between two Russian masterpieces, opening with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, a riot of colour and a tour de force for the brass. Written at great speed for the 37th anniversary of the Revolution, it is never quite clear how tongue in cheek it actually is – not that that affects our enjoyment.

After the interval we were presented with Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. One of the problems with the popularity of the two central movements is that we rarely hear them in context, and the long unwinding of the first movement demands considerably more attention than either the Allegro molto or the Adagio. There is also the reality that the composer’s style and orchestration has been regularly high-jacked by the film industry to the point where the original can sound derivative. Thankfully the orchestra’s playing and the skilful direction from the podium kept us on our toes and alive to the every shifting patterns that Rachmaninov creates for us on what is a long and often complex journey, before the exhilaration of the finale.

The next concert is on Saturday 2 December when Olivier Stankiewicz will perform Strauss’ Oboe Concerto, together with works by Wagner and Vaughan Williams.

Hastings Philharmonic

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Friday 13 October 2017

Marcio da Silva has planned a challenging and highly exciting season for Hastings Philharmonic and if this opening Beethoven concert is to set the standard for the year it will be a wonderful experience for all concerned.

There was a time when all-Beethoven concerts were a familiar feature for concert goers, but that is no longer the case and so the opening programme proved to be exhilarating in its range as well as the quality of its musicianship.

The Coriolan Overture had a brooding, dark quality, the lower instruments powerfully focused allowing solos lines to sing easily above but with no loss of weight. The few moments of light which Beethoven allows flowed effortlessly but the sense of anger and stress within the score was never far away. The cello lines at the close captured the sense of loss with real pathos.

Among many accolades, Kenny Broberg won at Hastings and has an impressive list of international orchestras with whom he has worked. He certainly seemed very much at ease with Hastings Philharmonic for Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, relishing the close rapport between himself and the players as well as the very close proximity of the audience. It must be rare to find himself surrounded by people, the piano being situated in the centre of the concert hall, rather than at one end.

The immediacy paid off with a virtuoso performance of exceptional dynamic range. The near thwacked scale runs in the first movement melted into the gentlest of touches, and there was an improvisatory feel to much of his playing which communicated a sense of living creativity rather than regurgitation of a familiar war horse.

The second movement was particularly impressive with a sense of the romantic movement hovering over the development of his musical line. Carried away, there were times when Kenny Broberg seemed to want to sing along with his own playing and had to hold himself back.

The finale had an immediate sense of joy and life, which radiated from the soloist and players to the whole hall. We were lucky to get an encore – a brief Chopin Mazurka – which was a gem and left us wanting more.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony can often seem over-played but with young musicians of this quality it sparkled into life and made a strong impact throughout. My only minor complaint is that I would have liked the repeats left in – given the quality we were experiencing – but maybe last trains come before longer works! The angst of the opening movement seemed to spill over into the Andante con moto and it took time for it to be absorbed into the more meditative structure.

I can’t recall being so aware before of what Beethoven does in the last movement. Adding in the trombones and double bassoon at the bass end, and the piccolo at the top, suddenly opens a new window to the dynamics of the piece and the weight of the earlier movements is transformed as it expands our aural response.

With such a close rapport between audience and performers this scoring was immediately obvious and highly effective.

Marcio da Silva introduced the season before the concert started and if this evening has been a precursor then we are in for a wonderful year. The next concert is on Saturday 4th November with works by Elgar, Holst, Britten and Mozart. info@hastingsphilharmonic.com