Pull Out All the Stops 2

R QuinneyRobert Quinney,
Royal Festival Hall, London  3rd February 2017

 

Robert Quinney’s highly anticipated all-Bach recital, the second in the 2016-17 Pull out all the Stops season at RFH, did not disappoint.  A large and appreciative audience reflected the reputation of this Oxford based organist who has recently released a number of excellent Bach programmes on CD including many of the works which made up this recital.

Beginning with such a popular and sometimes over-exposed piece as Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 could have been a mistake but on this occasion, delivered with flair and colour as well as a few of the performer’s own flourishes which did not detract, this was an inspired opening to an evening of music consisting mostly of works that are heard less often.

The chorale prelude Vater unser in Himmelreich was a lovely contrast to the opening piece, with softer voices and tremulant throughout. With a lightness of touch that was heard frequently throughout the programme, Robert Quinney demonstrated the beauty of this measured music played with attention to detail to create an intimacy sometimes missing from performances on this large scale instrument.

Four Duets provided much interest. These pieces for two equal voices played just on the manuals have a complexity beyond what might be expected from such a simple structure. Once again the carefully chosen registration maximised the impact of each line and allowed melody to emerge from often very busy and dense writing.

Other works in the recital were Prelude & Fugue in C (BWV 547), Prelude & Fugue in Eminor (BWV 548), Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her and Prelude & Fugue in G (BWV 541). A rousing and full-throttled encore rendition of Bach’s Sinfonia brought the evening to a close.

My criticism of some of the programmes in previous recitals at this venue has been that some performers have been tempted to overdo the “fast and loud”. In the hands and feet of a careful and well-planned organist this instrument is capable of so much variety – from the most raucous low pedals and full on grand choruses played with gusto to the delicate flutes and soft reeds, with so much in between. The combination of tonight’s well-chosen and varied programme with this organ and performer certainly brought something of JS Bach’s vision of God’s heaven to this listener’s earth. I hope we shall see a return to the RFH from Mr Quinney in the not too distant future.

Stephen Page

ENO: Rigoletto

'Rigoletto' Opera directed by Jonathan Miller performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKLondon Coliseum, Thursday 2 February 2017

 

Jonathan Miller’s famous Mafia staging of Rigoletto has returned to ENO’s repertoire. Though thirty five years old now, it is more than worthy its return, as it makes sense of both the narrative and the music. The dark spaces in Patrick Robertson’s designs are a fitting reflection of the even darker emotions on stage. That the first night of this thirteenth revival did not have quite the frisson one might have hoped for came more from a combination of details rather than any one problem.

Sir Richard Armstrong in the pit took a cautious approach to the score, with few moments of real excitement or passion. Tempi were often on the slow side with little sense of excitement. By contrast the chorus was in exciting and attacking form.

The solo cast sang well but with the exception of Sydney Mancasola’s radiant Gilda, were all leaning on the side of caution. This was probably why Nicholas Folwell made such an impact as Monterone, spitting venom at all around him even as he is led off to summary execution, and smaller parts like Marullo and even the police officer, came across so strongly.

Unfortunately the two leading men made a limited impact. Joshua Guerrero has the secure top for the Duke and phrases well but his approach seemed over-comfortable with little sense of the menace or threat the part involves and which this production has in the past brought out very well.

This was also true of Nicholas Pallesen’s Rigoletto. While the voice is well focussed for the part his presence rarely moved us. Where the character calls for a wide range of emotions which will sweep us away, here everything was careful, often to the point where it lacked emotional impact. The great cry for vengeance in act two gave no sense of catharsis, so that we never felt the weight of the curse. Rigoletto takes it seriously and so should we.

I have no doubt this production will be revived again. It deserves it. If the present cast can throw off what may have been first night nerves and become a little more reckless, it might yet be worth a visit.

Tales & Traditions

Noteworthy Voices at St Simon & St Jude, East Dean, Saturday 21 January 2017

St Simon East Dean

A bitterly cold night but the warmth of the welcome at St Simon and St Jude more than made up for any concerns, and Noteworthy Voices provided us with another superbly balanced programme of a cappella music.

The first half was given over to sacred texts, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with three reflective works. Thomas Mudd’s Let Thy Merciful Ears, O Lord has a quiet dignity before the richer textures of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, and the wonderfully floated lines of Byrd’s Ave verum. The next section brought us to praise of God with Victoria’s O Quam Gloriosum which seems to pile the musical lines onto each other in a dizzying attempt to raise us to heaven. The same composer’s Jesu Dolcis was more reflective before the high tessitura of Palestrina’s Jesu Rex Admirabilis and the bouncy rhythms of Exultate Deo.  Lotti’s Crucifixus is a miracle of condensed emotion, its harmonic palette so challenging it could have been written within the last century. By contrast the recent works by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo seemed almost easy on the ear, particularly the slow unfolding of Northern Lights.

The second half brought us to secular settings, opening with three choral songs by Brahms. The six part settings gave the choir a chance to demonstrate different tonal colours, particularly in the final melancholic Darthulas Grabegesang. Saint-Saens’ charming settings of Calme des Nuits and Les Fleurs et les Arbres led us gently towards the lighter end of the evening with folk and popular numbers.

Vaughan Williams’ arrangements of Linden Lea and Just as the tide was turning are none the less welcome for being familiar, and it was a delight to hear James Tomlinson as the bass soloist in The Turtle Dove. He will be missed when he leaves to take us a choral scholarship and we wish him well.

A lovely gentle arrangement of O Waly, Waly led us into Over the rainbow and Tea For Two – and all too soon we were at the end.

Ansy Boothroyd introduced the programme and conducted with subtlety and skill throughout. The different approaches she takes to the end of a piece is particularly noteworthy, with some dying away to silence while other are softly rounded. It is all beautifully crafted and the choir react with exceptional musicality to her shaping of the sound.

We look forward to hearing them again soon.

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, 15 January 2017

A crowd pleasing programme meant that the Dome was as full as I’ve ever seen it for a BPO concert. And despite the chilly wet January weather outside there was a very upbeat sense of “Now sits expectation in the air”. The concert which followed met that expectation with aplomb.

First came the operatic colour of the Overture to the Barber of Seville played with lush full tone and plenty of breathless excitement, especially in the syncopated passages, and in all those wonderful woodwind solos with a particularly noteworthy bassoon contribution.

Joseph Moog

I suppose Grieg’s piano concerto is second only to Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninov 2 in popularity – and deservedly so. Joseph Moog is an engaging player to watch despite his sitting so far forward on his stool that he appeared to be in serious danger of sliding off the front and disappearing under the piano. The performance really came into its own during the adagio in which the orchestra achieved a gloriously sweet, immaculately fluid sound, before the magical moment when the piano creeps in. It was played with the sort of imaginative restraint that even some of the world’s top orchestras fail to bring off. Moog and Ben Gernon interpreted the movement as much more of a musical dialogue than as a showpiece for accompanied piano. There was thoughtful, wistful work in the allegro too before the dive into the showy, virtuosic conclusion.

Dvorak 8 is possibly my favourite symphony. I’ve played the second violin part several times in amateur performances and I’ve heard it done professionally dozens (and dozens) of times. The secret of making this delightful music shine lies in managing the contrasts – the soft lyrical passages, the irrepressible dance motifs, the brass fanfares and all the rest of it. Ben Gernon, baton-less and quietly charismatic, was on top of the symphony’s every mood. He found the work’s warmth, passion,fun and made it satisfyingly coherent – even down to resisting the temptation to exaggerate the rall just before the end as so many self-indulgent conductors do. Particular high spots included the tripping, trickling joyfulness in the second movement at the introduction of the second subject, the waltzing vibrancy of the adagio and the beautifully nuanced – so Bohemian! – rhythms of the minor key section in the last movement – and congratulations to principal flute, Margaret Campbell. There’s a great deal of exposed flute solo in this symphony and Ms Campbell ensured that we heard and enjoyed every note of it.

Susan Elkin

 

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, Saturday 7 January 2017

A late romantic programme, starting and ending with Janacek, brought a healthily full audience to the Barbican Hall last night. Edward Gardner proved to be both enthusiastic and precise in his conducting, allowing the lush orchestrations to charm the listeners.

The evening opened with Janacek’s overture Jealousy. Originally planned as an overture to Jenufa but eventually abandoned, it was later revised as a concert piece in its own right. Here we heard it in Charles Mackerras’s reconstruction of the original which, if short, is full of impressive changes of mood and texture.

Smetana’s Ma Vlast is more familiar and we relaxed into a lyrically effuse reading of Vltava and a more strident Sarka. There was little sense of danger here, more a mythical, if not quite mystical piece of story-telling.

t-little

Szymanowski’s second violin concert is something of a rarity but Tasmin Little found all the nostalgic warmth inherent in the work as well as making the significant technical problems seem almost too easy. The extensive double stopping in the cadenza was most impressive but equally supported the sense of delight she brought to the whole piece. The final dance movement exploded into life, and if there was a darker heart lurking it was always at the mercy of the joy which flows throughout.

The new work was the UK premiere of Peter Eotvos’ The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies.  The work is both loud and aggressive for much of its twelve minutes and it is only towards the end that there is any obvious sense of space or silence surrounding the bird in flight. While there is some interesting use of percussion, the structure is difficult to follow on a first hearing and it did not seem to endear itself to the audience.

The final item brought us back to Janacek with Taras Bulba. If the original narrative line is less than attractive to a modern audience, with its death and torture throughout, the score is thankfully more than open to a range of potential story-lines. As such it made sense to simply enjoy Janacek’s glorious orchestration, particularly the final rolling pages, rather than worry too much over what is supposed to be happening. That way we were able to enjoy not only the BBCSO’s fine playing but the panache Edward Gardner brings to every live performance he gives.

New Year’s Eve Viennese Gala

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, The Dome, Brighton
Saturday 31 December 2017

Maybe it was New Year’s Eve falling on a weekend, but the Dome seemed even more alive than usual for the traditional Viennese Gala from Brighton Philharmonic, this year in the capable hands of Stephen Bell. His Christmas cracker jokes strike just the right note between the musical items and the orchestra not only responded with enthusiasm but came dressed for the occasion.

r-bottone

Soprano Rebecca Bottone was a delight throughout. Her high coloratura sparkled in Josef Strauss’ Dorfschwalben aus Osterreich and later in Sparenklange. Between these we heard Lehar’s Love live for ever and the Vilja lied. An unusual choice for New Year was her nicely tongue-in-cheek rendition of Poor Wand’ring One – Sullivan does not normally get a look in here but his pastiche worked well alongside the German masters.

The second half brought us closer to home with Robert Farnon’s Westminster Waltz and Eric Coates’ Mayfair Waltz – neither of them particularly familiar but certainly not out of place. Another rarity was the charming arrangement of Stars in my eyes which allowed us to hear a solo from leader John Bradbury. He started with hints of the Hungarian gypsy music which he plays so well before relaxing into the romantic tones of Kreisler’s composition.

If the above seems to imply there was a lack of more familiar Viennese music then the reality was far from it. The afternoon opened with the Act 3 March from Strauss II’s Der Zigeunerbaron, and the gentle delicacy of the polka Die Libelle – the dragonfly. We heard the Gold and Silver Waltz, and the Trisch-Trasch-Polka. Waldteufel’s Estudiantina brought real castanets and Strauss II’s Cuckoo Polka delighted with cuckoo and bird song. The strings proved their worth in the Pizzicato Polka and we did our bit in the Radetzky March.

The final item of the published programme was the Emperor Waltz – not, as Stephen Bell noted, The Blue Danube. It made sense. I suspect most of the audience will have listened to or recorded the concert this morning from the Musikverein in Vienna, to say nothing of endless repeats on Classic FM. The Emperor Waltz is a masterpiece in its own right and fully deserved to form the climax of the matinee. There was, of course, an encore, with Rebecca Bottone singing Il Bacio¸ and the inevitable Radetzky March before we went on our way.

Let us hope there is as large a gathering on Sunday 15 January for Rossini’s Overture: The Barber of Seville, Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, all under Ben Gernon.

The Best of British Film Scores

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, The Dome, Brighton,  4 December 2016

henry-v

Film music is very popular but one has to admit that most of the current popularity is with American composers. Think film – think Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones etc. But there was a time not so long ago when British film scores were among the best music being written.

This very popular concert – how good to see such a wide ranging audience – drew on the best British Film Scores of the last century, opening with Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue  and later the Charge and Battle from Henry V.  No excuse needs to be made for these thrilling pieces, and the triumphalist tone was continued with Arthur Bliss’ march from Things To Come and Eric Coates’ Dam Busters March.

Contrast was provided with Vaughan Williams’ Dawn Patrol which reflects his Pastoral Symphony and the more extrovert Prelude to 49th Parallel.

There is no doubt that Robert Farnon was a magnificent arranger and a fine composer in his own right but his score for the 1951 Hornblower  does not reflect the best of his work. The playful Polwheal is effective but the battle scene sounded entirely generic and the sentimental Lady Barbara overextended its welcome. The other disappointment was John Ireland’s The stampede for water from The Overlanders. Conductor Richard Balcombe, in his relaxed introductions, explained that this was a very late piece by Ireland and certainly does not reflect the quality of the rest of his opus.

The real delight of the afternoon came with two violin solos from John Bradbury, bringing us Ron Goodwin’s gentle Belle’s Love Theme from Beauty and the Beast and Nigel Hess’ more substantial Fantasia from  Ladies in Lavender. Both were exquisitely played with the integrity and charm John always brings to his solo work. There was no mention of these solos in the programme and, with no list of regular players, he does not have a biography either. Given his long-standing importance to the orchestra, particularly while there are a series of guest conductors, he surely deserves greater recognition.

The afternoon ended by reminding us, as if it were necessary, that it is almost Christmas, with Malcolm Arnold’s  Fantasia on Christmas Carols from the film The Holly and the Ivy. For such a fine piece I am surprised it is not performed more often and brought a very pleasing afternoon to a warm climax.

Next performance – though regulars will not need reminding – it the New Year’s Eve Concert on 31 December.

 

 

 

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, Maidstone, Saturday 3 December 2016

Warm romantic music for a chilly winter’s evening. A very popular programme brought a large number to the Mote Hall, enhanced no doubt by the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Heart of Kent Hospice.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings is indelibly linked for many of us to Ken Russell’s film for Monitor in 1962 and the boy on the white horse sweeping across the Malvern Hills. All of this came back in the richness of tone from the combined strings as they launched into the work, and then the sudden haunting delicacy of the solo viola. Have the strings ever sounded better? They certainly were on wonderful form and their new leader Andrew Pearson seems to have added a new enthusiasm to their playing.

benjamin-baker

Bruch’s Violin Concerto (yes of course there is more than one but the first has a head start!) is still regularly at the top of Classic FM’s Hall of Fame but whereas many works can seemed jaded by regular repetition, the Bruch never seems to do so. Here again it had a freshness and immediacy which was compelling. Much of this was down to Benjamin Baker’s playing. Brian Wright has a wonderful knack of finding us young soloists on the cusp of international stardom, and surely here was another. Having recently won the First Prize at the Young Concert Artists Final Audition Awards in New York, he is due to give a series of major concerts across the USA next season. Sensing the unassuming authority he brings to the Bruch it is no wonder he won. There is nothing showy, no histrionics, simply the purest of music making and an immaculate sense of line and fluidity. The 1709 Tononi violin which he plays radiates the most beautiful tone, easily riding the full orchestra, and where appropriate seducing us with hushed, almost imperceptible phrasing.

It was a masterly performance but also served to show what a masterpiece the concerto itself is, standing up to any number of repeats, day after day.

As a well-deserved encore he played the Sarabande and Gigue from Bach’s solo violin Partita No2 BWV 1004 – as far removed from Bruch as one could imagine, and sublimely performed.

If Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony did not hit quite the same heights it was understandable, though there was much very fine playing and the horn section in particular impressed. Brian Wright takes a taught, muscular approach to the opening movement, almost hard edged at times, though avoiding any chance of sentimentality. The contrasting undulations of the second movement were well found as were the dancelike measures of the third. The change in atmosphere for the austere fourth movement impressed, allowing us to emerge into the sunlight for the finale, and the sparkle of the Rhine itself.

This season is proving to be exceptional. Let us hope there are as many in the hall in February for John Lill playing Beethoven for the President’s Concert.

Glyndebourne Touring: Don Giovanni

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. 15 November.

gto-dg

What a success the Marlowe Theatre is, five years on from its rebuild. I’ve seen its main space full for pantomime, Philharmonia concerts, West End-style touring shows and much more.  And of course a Glyndebourne tour guarantees a very excited buzz and hardly an empty seat.

A rather abrupt, very punctually launched, overture led smoothly – once musicians and audience settled – to Leporello’s entrance unaccountably clad in grubby, baggy singlet and underpants in this somewhat bitty 1950s take on the story. In many ways Brandon Cedel, as Leporello, is a mercurial cross between Prince Harry and David Tennant, and the star of this show. His immaculately controlled, impassioned, chocolate-rich bass voice works well for both his serious, vexed moments and for lighter spots such as the famous conquest list aria. And he’s quite an actor.

I last saw Duncan Rock (title role) as Don Giovanni, four years ago in a production in a gay nightclub at Charing Cross in which all the roles except his were gender-reversed. He was interesting then but his interpretation, voice and acting have all matured in the interim. The deceptively simple Act 1 seduction duet with Zerlina (good – especially in the later number in which she woos back Bozidar Smiljanic as Masetto) is exquisitely sung and his sensitive Act 2 serenade is an utter delight.

Andrii Goniukov is suitably imposing as Il Commendatore and Ana Maria Labin is a very creditable Donna Anna with the right level of pain and revenge in her voice most of the time. There’s some fine work in the pit under Pablo Gonzalez with mandolin playing from Francisco Correa for the serenade as an especially noteworthy moment.

As for the production itself – Jonathan Kent, who directed the original production and Lloyd Wood who directs this touring revival  often stray perilously close to gimmickry. Why, for instance, do we have a fire at the end of Act 1? If it’s meant to prefigure Don Giovanni’s eventual descent then it’s painfully laboured. The set (designed by Paul Brown) makes so much use of the revolve that it quickly begins to feel unnecessarily fussy as it swings repeatedly to reveal different scenes. Much of the action is played in quite small contained spaces within on-revolve mini-sets. And if there’s an artistic or narrative reason for raking so steep within them that I was reminded of rock pools at the seaside as performers teetered rather alarmingly up and down, then I have failed to work out what it is.

In general though, it’s an enjoyable evening. I’ve seen Don Giovanni done in many quirky settings and eras and, actually, the material is so strong that the details of how you present it don’t matter much. Whatever you throw at the piece – provided the singing and playing is right – the music will carry it. That’s Mozart for you.

Susan Elkin

 

 

 

Hastings Philharmonic

White Rock Theatre, Hastings, 12 November 2016

Under Marcio da Silva, Hastings Philharmonic Choir has gained new authority and professionalism. To this he now adds a newly formed orchestra which gave its inaugural concert last night at the White Rock. Where many would have gone for a popular programme to encourage a wider audience he chose works which challenged both the performers and listeners – but the risk certainly paid off.

To set the seal we were given an unexpected violin solo to start the evening – an exquisite performance of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No2 in D BWV 1004. Not an easy work for the uninitiated but when so lovingly crafted it could not fail.

This set a standard for the rest of the evening. Music of the highest quality given with respect and professionalism by all concerned – not least the audience whose concentration was splendid throughout – and no attempts to clap between movements!

philip-omeara

The main work in the first half was a new composition by Philip O’Meara, entitled No Man.  It draws together a number of texts which reflect on the nature of man, ranging from Yeats and Victor Hugo to Schiller and the Old Testament. The hushed, reflective opening section includes distant whispers from the choir. It is unclear if these are prayers or the voices of the dead, but the motive returns in the final section when the whispers are no longer there. Have they been forcibly silenced, are they destroyed or have the souls been released? The enigma remains but the effect is moving.

Between these two sections there are effective choral settings of verses from Psalm 88 and a folk dance treatment of Victor Hugo’s Betise de la guerre. The seventh section is the only really extrovert passage with chunky syncopated rhythms and a sense of exultation. The choir seemed very much at home with the setting – even more impressive when one realises they were let down at short notice by the French choir which was to have joined them for the French choruses. It would be good to hear it again in the near future.

After the interval we heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – The Choral. Here the orchestra really came into its own showing both its very real strengths and present weaknesses. The quality of individual playing is not in doubt and there were many felicitous passages from solo instruments, notably the first bassoon and oboe. The string sound is good but at present there are simply not enough of them for the necessary balance. The second and third movements faired best in this respect, with a fine rhythmical bounce to the Scherzo and a wonderful lightness to the trio section. There was sensitivity and a sense of joy to the slow movement but again where the strings should blossom there simply was not the weight of sound available.

The choral movement itself is not an easy sing but the choir dealt with this without obvious strain, the top notes flying out with ease. The four young soloists were well balanced if a little nervous in their approach.

Marcio da Silva maintained a real sense of enthusiasm throughout the evening which was reflected by all on stage and in the audience.

This has been a fine start to a new venture which we applaud and look forward to following in future.

Their next concert is the familiar Christmas Carols Concert at St Mary in the Castle at 5.00pm on Sunday 18 December and there is a full brochure available of all the concerts over the next year. www.hastingsphilharmonic.com