Royal Albert Hall, Friday 8 September 2017

As always on the penultimate night of the world’s biggest classical music festival, the atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall was up several notches as the capacity audience settled down and the Vienna Philharmonic filed in.

Michael Tilson Thomas (how like the fondly remembered Otto Klemperer he begins to look – same sort of charisma too) made sure we heard lush precision in Brahms’ Variations on the St Anthony Chorale. The woodwind section players were almost dancing by the time we got to the vivace in Variation 5. It’s a fine work to begin a concert with because the score (not that TilsonThomas was using one) provides so much for everyone to do. It’s almost as much of showcase for instruments as is Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell aka TheYoung Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Then, the orchestra was slimmed down for Mozart’s piano concerto No 14 in E flat major, K449. Written in 1784 in Vienna this elegant, if shortish, work is an apt choice for a VPO concert although it isn’t one of Mozart’s most familiar concerti. Emmanuel Ax was an unshowy soloist who played Mozart’s own cadenzas with authority and lightness of touch. The dialogue between piano and orchestra, especially in the andantino middle movement was nicely balanced and it’s good to see Ax so engaged with the orchestra that he was virtually conducting from his piano stool when he wasn’t playing himself.

The advertised part of this fine concert ended with Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, as glorious and joyful as ever. Tilson Thomas’s interpretation, however, is more grandiose than frothy. His tempi, in the first three movements are gentle. He spares us those ultra-fashionable Norrington-esque hurtles in pursuit of Beethoven’s original metromome markings. The result? You could hear every delightful detail in the texture including lots of fine flute work, strong contrast between brass interjections and  woodwind rejoinders  along with the rich, but spirited string sound for which the VPO is famous. He gave us plenty of speed and lots of the prescribed brio in the allegro to round off a pretty splendid account of a popular work which manages never to sound hackneyed. I do wonder, though, about the wisdom of lining up horns and trumpets, five big steps above the strings. It means they can see and be seem, obviously. But it also means that you can hear their parts so clearly it’s as if you’re reading their music and sometimes it’s obtrusive rather than blended into the sound.

Tilson Thomas introduced the encore On Hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring as “a piece you will all know very well” – a hint that he, an American, and the VPO do not. In fact I discovered afterwards that the orchestra had never played it before. Well of course Delius is a long way from Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven in terms of both time and place but the VPO played it with tender respect and it was a fitting end to a most enjoyable concert.

Lovely to see the VPO in London again, by the way. This time I counted seven women players: four second violins, one first violin and two cellos. Things are gradually equalising but they still have a way to go. I’m sure there are plenty of eager, talented female brass and woodwind players in Austria and elsewhere just waiting for a break …


Prom 64

I heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on their home turf in Amsterdam in June so it was a real treat to catch them on their first Proms outing since 2009, only a few weeks later – this time with their chief conductor, Daniel Gatti – and the choice of programme, definitely not mainstream, was interesting too. Wolfgang Rihm, born 1952, and Anton Bruckner are not obvious bedfellows but in combination they provided quite a showcase for this fine orchestra.

Like most people in the hall, I was hearing Rihm’s In-Schrift (loosely translated as Inscription), premiered in 1995, for the first time. It requires a chamber size orchestra without upper strings but includes six percussionists and six trombones, two of them bass trombones. The starring role belongs to the percussionists who at one point lead a magnificent quasi-cadenza on five side drums. Mesmerised by the sheer excitement of it, I was also glad that I didn’t have to count for the entries in such an episodic work full of tempo changes. I was almost relieved to see Gatti counting the bars with his fingers for the percussionists as they reached the turning point in their big moment. There’s a lot of finely nuanced dialogue in this piece as it works through its many moods and tensions. The principal flute, who led the orchestra for this piece, for example, has a lot of interplay with trombones, woodblocks and tubular bells (5 sets). If you want drama in music, there was no shortage of it here.

After an interval to digest the impact of the Rihm, we were back to a more conventionally configured full orchestra, although Gatti splits his violins and puts his double basses behind the firsts. Bruckner’s unfinished ninth symphony in D minor (homage to Beethoven, he said) is not one of his best known works. Written at the very end of his life, it feels like an autobiographical retrospective which works well in three movements – two slow ones sandwiching a contrasting scherzo and trio.  Gatti, who conducted this without a score, coaxed a sound from the orchestra which managed to be both crisp (those repeated chopping down bows in the middle movement) and velvety with a pleasingly warm brass sound, suitably plangent in the first movement and like melted chocolate in the adagio. Clearly a charismatic musician, Gatti sometimes beats time clearly and at others reduces his hand movement to a minimalist, understated twitch. He is, presumably, communicating with his eyes which, of course, the audience can’t see. At 65 minutes this is a very long, concentrated work and although Gatti ensured that it held the attention and was pretty moving, it might have been better to have cut some of the repeats, especially the one at the opening of the third movement.

Susan Elkin

Baroque Chamber Music

St Nicolas Pevensey Saturday 12 August 2017

The Bats may not have been in the belfry but their protected status has meant that the planned restoration work at St Nicolas, Pevensey, has had to be delayed. The accruing benefit has resulted in the church being available for a summer concert from regular visitor baroque flautist Neil McLaren and baroque violinist Jane Gordon.

Their concert opened with a sonata for both instruments by Telemann. With the sun still streaming through the clerestory windows the opening Dolce seemed a perfect reflection of the gentle warmth of a summer evening. The Largo flowed with simple grace before the rapid dance rhythms of the final Vivace with its hints of hurdy-gurdy from the violin.

JS Bach’s Suite in A minor for solo flute has been adapted by Neil McLaren himself to fit the four movements written specifically for flute into the more familiar structure of a suite for solo instruments. In this case he used the opening Prelude and closing Gigue from the second suite in D minor BWV1008 for cello to telling effect. The Prelude pierced through – at times almost uncomfortably aggressive – before relaxing more into the fluidity of the Allemande and Corrente. The Sarabande is a complete contrast, its sense of yearning and sadness always to the fore. The jollier Bourree Anglaise led to the more extrovert tones of the final Gigue but the intense intimacy of the work is never really lost. Telemann’s Canonic Sonata in D concluded the second half with its hints of pastoral rhythms and formal dances.

The second half opened with one of Bach’s greatest works, but one which is probably not as familiar as it should be. The D minor Partita for solo violin ends with the great Ciaccona which is not only a monumental climb for the performer but also a highly demanding call for the listener. The long opening set of variations twist and turn their way through the most frightening of forms before suddenly emerging into the uplands of the major key variations and a sense of paradise beyond the strife. But Bach does not leave us there. He brings us back to the reality of earth but this time reflected in the knowledge that we have glimpsed heaven even if we are not there yet. It is a masterpiece as great as anything else by Bach and was subtly and wonderfully crafted by Jane Gordon.

It was, of course, difficult to follow but CPE Bach’s brief Duo for flute and violin brought the evening to its official close with the slightly tongue-in-cheek dance movements returning a smile to all. As an encore they gave us a brief movement from Rameau’s Les Indes Galante. Let us hope that the bats don’t keep them away for too long.

Prom 36

Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2017

It is Thomas Dausgaard’s extraordinary control over dynamics that I shall remember most about this concert. In the Schubert he had the upper strings whispering so softly that they were hardly there which made those punctuating sforzandos all the more dramatic. At the end of the Mahler the sound simply died away, while 5000 people waited, breath held, for the baton to drop (and it was a long time) despite the earlier inappropriate applause at the end of powerfully moving movements in both works.

It is an inspired programming idea to give us a pair of unfinished (arguably valedictory) symphonies composed 90 years apart. Here the Schubert stood gloriously self contained in its two movements – both in triple time with all that familiar B minor melancholy. Dausgaard has a knack of really making you listen (to the cello opening and the anguish in the second movement for example) with the results that this performance sounded delightfully fresh. Even the slight raggedness in the syncopated theme in the first movement was only a momentary distraction.

The Mahler, in contrast, was presented here as completed by Deryck Cooke and a team of three others as it almost always is. This version was first played at the Proms in 1964 and this was its seventh performance there. The opening adagio (pretty much pure Mahler) with its unusual gift to violas at the start gave Dausgaard plenty of scope to squeeze out every drop of dynamic contrast although sadly, when the music is as quiet as that one becomes more conscious of audience noise and fidgeting. Both scherzos and the playful but doom laden Purgatorio added to the sense of Mahler’s anguish – when this symphony was drafted he was both dying and dealing with his wife’s infidelity. This felt like an authentically autobiographical performance and a poignant one.

The high spot of Mahler 10 is, of course, the moment when the second scherzo, the fourth movement, gives way to the finale. Dausgaard, who described the music in this symphony as “transcendental” in conversation with Sean Raffery on Radio 3’s in Tune last week, really leaned on  those extraordinary resonant silences which lurk menacingly in the dialogue between bass drum and tuba. Yes, we were suddenly a very long way from the Schubert we’d heard an hour earlier.

Congratulations to the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra for all of this. The Mahler, in particular, is an exhausting work to play but there was never any sense of dipping energy levels. Rather the playing (Charlotte Ashton’s long flute solo in the Mahler, for instance) was always fine and often exciting. If this is the quality they can achieve with their new chief conductor then I look forward to more.



Opera Anywhere: Mikado

Bayham Abbey, Saturday 5 August 2017

Just when it looked as though Saturday evening might be a wash-out the sun came through, the sky cleared and picnicking could begin at Bayham Abbey before the start of that evening’s Mikado. The event was part of this year’s Lamberhurst Festival and was by Opera Anywhere who specialise in small scale touring productions but do not skimp on musical quality. All the voices we heard were appropriate and well-focused, and the accompaniment, based around Nia Williams at the piano, included solo strings and wind. Amplification was inevitably in use but was sensitively balanced to maintain an illusion of natural voices. That the singers could probably have carried without amplification was clear when the schoolgirls entered from the back of the seating area and could easily be heard though they were far from the stage itself.

Director Miles Horner’s approach was comfortably conventional, allowing the familiar narrative to unfold without any unnecessary attempts to add additional jokes or to update Gilbert’s lyrics – with the obvious exception of Ko-Ko’s little list which ranged from cold calling to Donald Trump. Mike Woodward gave us an idiosyncratic Ko-Ko, the voice alarmingly like Ambridge’s bad boy Matt Crawford. I did wonder for a moment whether the whole production was not a nightmare in the mind of Linda Snell!

One of the finest moments was very much unplanned. At the start of Act2 Yum-Yum, Nadia Eide Storrs in fine voice, had just launched into The sun whose rays when a formation of geese languidly flew across the twilight. It was a magical moment, but capped soon after when she was able to sing the second verse directly to the full moon which hung above us. How often can a Yum-Yum do that?

David Menezes gave us a lyrical Nanki-Poo and David Jones, a late substitute, a suitably cynical Pooh-Bah. Miles Horner doubled Pish-Tush with the Mikado. Vanessa Woodward brought a sense of reserve to Katisha, rather than the more conventional blood-thirsty harridan, but one sensed there was no bright future even after Tit-willow.

The choral parts were taken by members of the company and it is one of the advantages of amplification that four voices can sound like a much greater force when they come from speakers all around you.

While a significant number of the audience drew their chairs closer to the stage, many remained at their picnic tables to enjoy the ambience of the abbey and the mist which rolled in across the fields as the moon rose. About as close to an English idyll as one could wish.


Prom 26

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Parvo Jarvi
Vilde Frang (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)

This was a concert which grew in scale as it proceeded. We began with a small string orchestra for Erkki-Sven Tuur’s Flamma, augmented to a chamber orchestra for Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and finally to a full symphony orchestra for Brahms second symphony. It meant that some players were twiddling their thumbs back stage until after the interval but it also provided a show case for the versatility of this energetic orchestra – there’s so much body movement from players that it’s hard to sit still as you watch although Parvo Jarvi is a relatively unshowy conductor.

The Mozart was the high spot. It’s a real pleasure to hear this glorious, joyful work live with a pair of highly charismatic soloists. I have no idea how well Frang and Power know each other or how much they’ve worked together in the past but they communicate in musically flirtatious twinkles, leaning in towards each other with lots of smiles. At times, especially in the presto, it was like watching a dance. Neither is standoffish and both clearly see themselves as ensemble chamber musicians, often gently playing along with the orchestra. Power is an emphatic player with curiously expressive bouncy knees. The sound blend of their two instruments in the beautiful andante movement is something to treasure.

It is, however, their encore which most attenders at that concert will remember. Both clearly good actors who enjoy a joke they swapped instruments and then proceeded to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star very badly. Power on Frang’s fiddle gradually ran away with the tune until Frang, in mock exasperation, snatched his bow. Then they played Mozart’s showpiece variations with witty aplomb – all great fun.

At the front end of the programme sandwich, the UK premiere of Flamma by Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur, was full of nicely executed climbing motifs and glissandi along with lots of busily difficult cross string work. Premiered in Canberra in 2011 the piece was inspired by the Australian experience of fire.

And finally to Brahms 2; a cheerful upbeat work after the angst of the first symphony, as the composer himself said. I enjoyed the freshness of the sound which comes from Jarvi’s splitting first and second violins by putting violas and cellos in the middle – with basses behind the firsts and timpanist in the body of the orchestra. In an understated but quite vibrant performance, Jarvi calmly allows the dynamics to stress the drama, especially in the Allegro con spirito fourth movement with its very soft fidgety string passages contrasted with big Brahmsian melodies.


Opera Holland Park, Verdi’s Requiem

Of course I’ve heard many performances of Verdi’s Requiem and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sung (alto) in the chorus for amateur attempts. Never, though, have I heard or felt it delivered with such heartfelt passion as in this memorial for Opera Holland Park employee, Debbie Lamprell, who died in nearby Grenfell Tower in June. Every one involved in the performance including two conductors (who swapped before the Offertorio), City of London Sinfonia, all the singers and a huge front of house team had given their services in order to raise funds for the Rugby Portobello Trust which is supporting Grenfell Tower victims.

In many ways, this really is Verdi’s greatest opera. Atheist he was but he certainly understood emotion wherever it springs from. The Lacrymosa (conducted here by Peter Robinson) is a terrific B flat minor dialogue between the woodwind and mezzo. Yvonne Howard who has the clarety richness of an old fashioned contralto in the lower registers squeezed every drop of feeling out of those sexy chromatic shifts.

Anne Sophie-Duprels (who sang the title role in Opera Holland Park’s Zaza this season) started Libera Me in a restrained, understated way – clearly a deliberate decision because she builds it to a terrific climax.

Neal Cooper is very actorly singer to watch and I suspect he’s more at home in opera than oratorio. He throws himself, face screwed up, somewhat disconcertingly into every note although the sound is good especially when he reaches the pianissimo of “Salva me” in the Rex Tremendae movement with all its contrasts and mood shifts.

Bass Barnaby Rea makes a lovely edge-of-your-seat start on the dramatic “Mors” passage in the Tuba Mirum. It’s marked pp but he does it at an even lower dynamic which gives a sense of death creeping in insidiously – and totally appropriately for this particular event. On the other had he sings the rest of his part so gently that it felt more like a rehearsal sing-through than a performance which mean that he was, often , overpowered by the other three when he shouldn’t be.

The chorus sang with immaculate precision, power and control. Many OHP principals and guest artists were included and that really showed.

Full marks too to City of London Sinfonia who played magnificently. There’s something about the layout and acoustic of Opera Holland Park (and the direction of Peter Robinson and Sian Edwards) which allows you to hear aspects of Verdi’s orchestration which usually get muddied away.  There was some delightful, very audible, work in this performance, for example, from principal flute Alison Hayhurst and timpanist Tristan Fry. And what an inspired idea to place the offstage trumpets at the back of the auditorium for Tuba Mirum – total immersion in the last trumpet and the day of judgement.

A note in the programme, signed by Opera Holland Park’s directors James Clutton and Michael Volpe “and the staff and trustees of Investec Opera Holland Park” declares: “We can think of no better way for commemorate the victims or to express our feelings than to make music”. They are right.

Prom 20

Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 29 July 2017

Imaginative programming meant there were three contrasting styles from three different centuries in this vibrant concert. All credit to the BBC too for investing in an expensive modern work (The Greatest Happiness Principle by David Sawer) which requires seven percussionists, harp, masses of brass and extra strings most of whom were not required in the rest of the programme. It would have been more economical to pair it with, say, a Mahler symphony but more original and probably more enlightening to hear it before Haydn.

The evening began with a thoughtful rendering of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with its compelling D minor melancholy and mood swings. Stephen Hough gave a highly accomplished performance including a sumptuously lyrical middle movement.  Both grandiloquent Brahms piano concerti are effectively big symphonies with a piano part. It was interesting, therefore to see Hough turning respectfully away from the audience and piano whenever he wasn’t playing to watch Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra of which he evidently regards himself as part. He’s a totally unprima-donna-ish team player.  It took Wigglesworth a while to get the orchestra into overdrive – the strings sounded hesitant in the first movement’s exposed pianissimo passages – but they played  with panache once warmed up.

The 1997 Sawer piece is a rhythmic and unexpectedly melodius exploration of symmetry inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s design for a new prison at Milbank where Tate Britain now stands. Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic had a lot of fun with all that percussion and repeated phrases with lots of colourful variation. And, of course, David Sawer was the only one of the three composers who was bodily present in the hall – the others were there only in spirit.

And so to reduced forces and Haydn’s 99th symphony. In this perky work Wigglesworth established a fine balance between tempi and dynamics to allow all the orchestral detail to shine smilingly through. He gave us a crisp and witty first movement, a minuet which really danced into the trio and caught most of the audience by exaggerating that typical Haydn joke – the false ending.


Garsington Opera: Silver Birch

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Sunday 30 July 2017

Community operas have a very different dynamic from conventional stagings and Roxanna Panufnik makes the most of these in her new work Silver Birch which was given three performances at Wormsley last weekend with a cast of 180. The use of large choral forces was much in evidence but they are split across three convincingly naturalistic groups. While the narrative line brings together the realities of the trauma of war – an excellent libretto from Jessica Duchen – it moves seamlessly between Siegried Sassoon and the war in Iraq. Jack’s story is reflected in the massed reactions of the general public, the army itself and a large body of school children.

Jessica Duchen does not flinch from the painful realities of the effects of war. Jack is genuinely traumatised by his time under fire, and though to the crowd back home he is a hero, his emotional life – fragile at the best of times – is destroyed. We are given a bleak insight into his family relationships and the destructive power of his callous father. One of the few dubious moments in the whole evening is the attempted reconciliation of father and son at the end.

Much of the evening is given over to choral scenes which are staged with exemplary clarity and discipline by Karen Gillingham. While individual characters emerge from the mass across the wide stage there is never any point at which the focus of attention is lost. The energy the younger members bring to the stage is extraordinary – whether they are the soldiers PE routines or the primary children singing Soldier, Soldier.

The opening scene reminded me of the start of Porgy and Bess. A real community of real people – and lots of them – which we suddenly realise is growing and developing before our eyes. If the narrative focusses down eventually onto Jack – a splendid characterisation from Sam Furness and very moving – it is the seeming lack of understanding from the community as a whole which impinges. This is never more true than in the school scene where his brother Leo gets into trouble, reading Jack’s copy of Siegfried Sassoon, because of the traumatic disruption Jack’s joining the army has caused. It is not just soldiers who are hurt by war but all of us.

Roxanna Panufnik writes bold passionate choruses, often easily lyrical but never simplistic or overtly popular. While easy to take in on a first hearing, there is more than enough here to make me wish there were a way of adapting the whole for different forces. This was a magnificent undertaking for all concerned – not least Douglas Boyd and his extended orchestra – and let us hope something more long lasting will come out of it.


Prom 14

Prom 14- Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor & Gustav Holst’s The Planets performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall, on Tuesday 25 July 2017.
Photo by Mark Allan

Tuesday 25 July 2017
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
CBSO Youth Chorus
John Wilson

It’s a quirky but rather lovely idea for a Scottish orchestra to play two works by quintessentially English composers. The 5,000 people who packed the Royal Albert Hall to the gunwhales for this concert had clearly – and wisely – left politics, devolution, referenda and the rest at the door.

Vaughan Williams’s 1958 ninth and last symphony is a valedictory work in soulful E minor. It bears all the usual RVW hallmarks such as lush lyrical string passages in the second movement, the strident crunchy brass chords and, of course, reluctance to stick to the same time signature for more than a line or two.  Leader Laura Samuel made something pretty special of the The Lark Ascending-like violin solo and, in a spirited rendering, Wilson carefully emphasised the contrasts in texture and rhythm. He also made sure we sensed the finality and gravitas of the ending – this is a composer very close to the end of his life.

The symphony requires quite large forces which is another reason for its pairing well with The Planets. A few extra players arrived after the interval to complete the double brass and six-strong percussion section, but not that many. And then we were in for a real treat. Familiarity does not detract from the wonder of this spell-binding work played here with incisive warmth and exemplary textual accuracy. From the busy, mysterious, relentless 5|4 of Mars to the magic of the CBSO youth chorus tucked away on the top balcony (chorus master: Julian Wilkins) for remote, mystical Neptune, this was a riveting performance.  Wilson’s take on Uranus is exaggerated and comical – the man next to me (another critic, I think) actually laughed at the organ flourish. And I was much more aware in this performance than I usually am that Mercury is another name for quicksilver – the precise mood Wilson coaxes from the orchestra. The ending was the thing I shall long remember about this concert, though, as the top notes from the choir gradually silenced the orchestra. I’ve rarely head it done with such control or been so acutely aware of 5,000 people listening intently.

Another positive thing about this concert incidentally, in a week when we’ve heard an awful lot about gender imbalance in the media and the arts, is to see women so well represented in almost every section of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Bravo. SE