Bromley and Beckenham International Music Festival: Concert 2 Bromley Parish Church

Bromley and Beckenham International Music Festival (BBIMF) was co-founded last year by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who comes from Bromley and violinist Raja Halder. This concert was the second in a series of four over the festival’s single weekend – and a thing of wonder it was too happening as it did at 4.30 on Saturday afternoon, an oasis of culture and calm a few yards from the busy high street with its shops and pubs.

It’s a treat to see Grosvenor, who famously won Young Musician of the Year aged 11 and is still only 26, on his home turf and doing the chamber music he is so committed to. I last saw him 11 days earlier playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto at the Proms.

We began with Britten’s Lachrymae op 48a which is based on Dowland’s song “If my complaints could passions move”. Premiered at Aldburgh in 1950 and scored for viola and piano, it was new to me as it was, I suspect, to most of the audience. It is actually a theme and variations but Britten reverses the usual order and doesn’t let us hear the plain theme until the end. At this performance a group of four musicians, almost out of sight near the high altar played the soulful, hymn-like Dowland so that we could hear it first. Then it was down to Timothy Ridout and Benjamin Grosvenor to make it sing in the fabulously resonant acoustic of Bromley Parish Church. The effects were surreal and otherworldly especially in the third variation with pizzicato pinging out over wide chords on the piano and I loved the end with Ridout sending the harmonics off into the lofty blue domed roof like stars dying away in the distance.

The second work was the much more familiar Schubert Trio in E flat major in which Grosvenor was joined by violinist Hyeyoon Park (his regular duet partner) and cellist Bartholomew LaFollette. It was supremely well played with warmth and drama in the interwoven melodies of the opening movement. I liked the elegance they brought to the andante as the tune is passed round before those entrancing octave leaps and there was lots of light and dark in the Scherzo. Then they played the Allegro Moderato with delicious charm especially in the witty rotating solo. There was absolutely no blurring of sound in this performance. You could hear every note of every part because speeds were judged to accommodate the loftiness of the space.

I was delighted to see several children at this concert and also noted with approval that the vicar, James Harratt is clearly pleased to have this remarkable festival in his church. He personally welcomed people in at the door, ticking our names off his list and spoke enthusiastically to the audience at the beginning. Too often, when there are concerts in churches, the priest-in-charge, vicar or rector is nowhere to be seen.

Susan Elkin

Prom 7th September Halle Orchestra Sir Mark Elder

In many ways this was the concert I’ve been yearning for. For eighteen long months I have hankered wistfully to be in a concert hall, packed to capacity with a large orchestra including double brass, sax, contrabassoon, tuba and lots of percussion. This one ticked all those boxes with two handed piano and the massive Royal Albert Hall organ thrown in for good measure.

It was very neatly linked programming too with Unsuk Chin’s homage to Beethoven subito con forza leading to Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto which used the Saint-Saens cadenzas as a pathway to the latter’s third symphony. Joined-up thinking was the order of the day.

Chin’s piece, commissioned for last year’s Beethoven celebrations but, perforce, not heard in the UK until now, is full of Beethovenian chords, cadences, rhythms and snatches of melody offered and then snatched away by a battery of percussion. It’s good fun, very ingenious and Elder ensured that we heard and enjoyed every strand.

It’s always a treat to hear Benjamin Grosvenor play Beethoven and an especial pleasure to hear the beautiful fourth which doesn’t get quite as many outings as the third and fifth. I liked the emphasis on the filigree texture in the first movement and the Elder’s cheerful focus on every orchestral interjection. Sir Mark smiles a lot from which I infer that he really is having as good a time as the audience is. In what was, a warm, friendly but unshowy performance there was gentle passion in the melodious adante with a moving segue into the last movement.

The Saint-Saens cadenzas were interesting but far too heavy and “Romantic” for what is, in essence a classical concerto, notwithstanding its unusual opening. I’m glad I heard them, and understand exactly why they fitted this context, but I certainly wouldn’t want them as my go-to version of this concerto,

And so to Saint-Saens in all his glory. The performance of the 1886 third symphony Organ was magnificent from its quavery first movement (I can’t be the first person to detect a nod to Schubert 8 in there?) to the marvel of Anna Lapwood, making her Proms debut seated at the organ a very long way from Elder at the front of the distanced Halle orchestra – whose pizzicato work, by the way, is exceptionally effective. Lapwood brought tender lyricism to the lovely melody in the poco adagio and then all the dramatic grandiloquence that the last movement requires. “Excitement” is an overused word but it really was extraordinarily exciting – almost awe-inspiring – to hear the Royal Albert Hall resonating to that huge sound as the final chords blasted over the timpani. If I were several decades younger I might say “wow!” and capitalise it.

Susan Elkin

Barefoot Opera Almeida Outside Orfeo ed Euridice/Zanetto 5th September (and touring)

This neat double bill sets a pared down version of Gluck’s 1762 three act opera alongside Mascagni’s 40 minute Zanetto (1896) and it makes a pleasingly accessible evening of opera, running less than two hours in total. Surtitles clarify the storytelling so that we can enjoy the musicality of the original Italian.

It’s an almost all female project too with an on stage band comprising Lesley-Anne Sammons directing the music from keyboard with Lucy Mulgan on guitar and double bass. The cast – three for Gluck and two for Mascagni – is all women too.

And that brings me to the glorious alto performance from Emma Roberts as Orfeo and then – a very different role – as the travelling musician, Zanetto. Roberts can really act convincingly which is vital in this bijoux performance in an intimately small space. And she is adept at carving out resonant low notes and making them speak poignantly. It isn’t easy to deliver a pot boiler like Che faro senza Euridice and carry it off as if it’s fresh because nearly everyone in the room has vivid sound memories of Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. Roberts, however, does a fine job, packed with anguish as she mourns over the body of the now finally lost Euridice (Lizzie Holmes) and I was moved by her poignant ornamentation on the final repeat. In Orfeo ed Euridice, at the performance I saw, Katie Blackwell, standing in at short notice gave us a silver-voiced, cheeky, smiling Amore.

Lizzie Holmes comes into her own as Silvia in Zanetto. It is, of course, a very different musical world from Gluck and she gives us a lonely but very worldly “hostess” who finds herself drawn to the young musician who asks her for help. She is troubled by her own mixed feelings and her soprano singing usually supports that strongly. There’s some sensitive duet work with the Roberts as the insouciant Zanetto too.

Several things strike me about this enjoyable project. First, it’s a good showcase for the versatility of young singers because the roles they play in the two works are quite different. Second, I’m all in favour of chamber opera companies working in small spaces on low budgets because it makes opera available and affordable for people who simply can’t afford Royal Opera House, ENO or Glyndebourne. Third the two musicians wear white rather than black which makes a cheerfully fresh statement. Why should such talented people try to efface themselves in black?

Susan Elkin

BBC Proms 4th September Organ Recital: Peter Holder

Royal Albert Hall

In 1871, Queen Victoria opened the Royal Albert Hall to pay tribute to her late husband, Prince Albert. This morning’s BBC Proms concert pays homage to the opening seasons of 1871 and 1880 with music inspired by the opening concerts almost 150 years ago. Sitting on the organ bench today was Westminster Abbey’s (previously St Paul’s Cathedral’s) sub-organist, Peter Holder. However, Holder is not new to the proms; his first debut was in 2019, where he performed Janá?ek’s Glagolitic Mass on its opening night.

The concert opened with Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Coronation March from his grand 1849 opera Le prophète. While listening to this stately march, I found myself lamenting that Meyerbeer’s operas are rarely performed nowadays. Nevertheless, with all of the organ stops drawn out, I was moved by the works imperial and palatial character.

No organ recital is complete without J.S. Bach, or so they say. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue followed in a more reposed style. Holder chose a combination of quieter stops for the Fantasia, which was highly effective; it allowed one to adjust oneself to the complex eccentricities of Bach’s complex contrapuntal writing.

Moving forward 200 years, Charles-Marie Widor’s Allegro Vivace from his Symphony No. 5 followed. Most may recognise the infamous final toccata movement, notably played at weddings during the bride’s departure. However, Holder executed this opening movement with dynamism and vigour. His agility shone mid-way through where he drew the organ’s flute stops demonstrating Widor’s delicate but tortuous melodic writing. The work ends with a triple f, or ‘as loud as you can go’. Colloquially, the organist is forbidden to draw all of the stops at once at the Royal Albert Hall, as it is said to damage the brickwork due to the vibrations!

Now, onto what I was most looking forward to hearing; the Fantaisie No. 1 in Eb by the French 20th-century composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The Albert Hall organ was built in a ‘British orchestral’ style and is thus not commonly suited to French romantic organ music with heavy French diapasons and nasal reeds. Nonetheless, Holder performed the music of this centenary composer with much deftness. The highlight of this piece was the cadenza passage before the final few chords, where each hand plays the same notes by an octave apart. With the Albert Hall’s considerable acoustic, Holder managed to articulate every note so that the audience could precisely hear what Saint-Saëns had to say.

The final work in the programme was Franz Liszt’s infamous work Fantasia and Fugue on the plainchant ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. The longest piece in the programme by a whole 20-minutes, this work was best saved to the end. Often considered one of the most challenging works in the organ repertoire, with its fast-changing harmonic progressions and dexterous melodic runs, Holder performed the piece with an incredible amount of ingenuity. The work has passages that are much akin to the organ writing of Charles-Marie Widor, whom we heard earlier, and the aesthetic of the two composers placed in the same programme created a noticeable synergy. Before the work ends, Holder managed to show off the organ’s Tuba Mirabilis stop, the loudest solo stop on the organ. Overwhelmed by the turbulence of the sound, Holder received a much-deserved standing ovation, followed by an invitation from the audience to play an encore, which he unfortunately declined.

What an extraordinary end to the concert; I am sure that this will not be the last time we see Peter Holder at the BBC Proms over the coming years!

Matthew Geer

Prom 3rd September BBC Symphony Orchestra Semyon Bychkov

This concert presented High Romanticism in several guises. And that meant lots of emotion and more beautiful melodies than you could shake a stick at – all under the baton of a holistically inclined conductor who places the music centre stage rather than resorting to showy, look-at-me gesturing.

We began with the angry majesty of Beethoven’s Coriolan interspersed with passages of gossamer lightness before the most dramatic of pianissimo endings – a fine performance of an old favourite which still managed to sound fresh and interesting.

The central work was Schumann’s piano concerto which written for and premiered by his wife, Clara, in the early 1840s. Kirill Gerstein played it like a glorious duet with orchestra. In the first movement, for example, his incisive A minor rippling was perfectly punctuated with orchestral interjection with Bychkov paying loving attention to every nuance, The delicacy of dialogue between piano and orchestra was like an intimate conversation in the middle movement too.

A big orchestra like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, on this occasion spaced out 2021-style, somehow filters the sound so that you hear everything separately and clearly. Sometimes that feels a bit disparate but here it brought out to good effect elements such as the horn entries in the first movement and the clarinet continuo in the second.

Gersteins’s encore was a virtuosic delight too. I was expecting a jazz piece because that’s his other field of interest. In the event we got a Bussoni transcription of a Bach chorale. Only the (very) nimble fingered need apply – but Gerstein made it sound effortless.

And so, finally, with Mendelssohn to Scotland for an intelligent performance of the delightful third symphony. High spots included the clarinet solo in the second movement, a deliciously crisp Allegro vivacissimo and a rousing maestoso at the end with lovely horn work.

For me, though, the crowning glory was the third movement, the adagio. Based as it is round one of the most sublime melodies ever written it is all too easy to wallow. Bychhov, however, knows exactly how to make it movingly, poignantly tuneful without ever descending to gush – even when we get to the simple account of the melody on the horn.

I left the Royal Albert Hall, my head happily rattling with Mendelssohn, and pondering the current problems orchestral players have to grapple with. When are we going to stop this rule about not allowing string players to share a desk? From my seat in Block H, I could almost read the music on the back first violin stands. Much evidence of tedious photocopying, pasting and stapling lay thereon in order to make the page turns work. I think it’s time to get back to normal.

Susan Elkin

Prom 1st September Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner is, quite literally an inspiration. He breathes music into his players and singers with wondrous results. As someone said to me afterwards it would have been worth the ticket price just for the Conquassabit passage in Handel’s Dixit Dominus – with its dramatic announcement pause and then a whole series of superbly articulated, staccato entries. It was an edge of the seat moment. And Sir John achieves all this without fuss or flamboyance – just fluidity of the wrists, mouthing the words and the unfussy force of personality. This, astonishingly, was his 60th appearance at the Proms.

The concert began with Handel’s Donna, che in ciel, an early cantata probably written in 1707 for a thanksgiving service to mark Rome’s having escaped damage from the terrible 1703 earthquakes in central Italy. It was new to me, and I suspect, to many of the Proms audience. Scored for solo alto (Ann Hallenberg in this performance) and string orchestra it has some very memorable sections such as the simple but mesmerising Tu sei la bella. Hallenberg, who can scoop out wine-dark low notes as well as sailing gloriously through high ones, found drama, passion and excitement in the piece. Some of it went so fast – Sorga pure dall’irrodo averno, for instance – that it was almost like a Rossini patter song and I was struck, yet again, by the innate musicality of the Italian language. Handel contrasts these passages with lyrical legato ones and Hallenberg compelled you to pay attention to every note.

And then we turned to Bach for Christ lag in Todes Banden, This, like Donna, che in ciel, was written in 1707. With a neat parallel, both composers were 22 that year. As for the opening work, Eliot Gardiner had violas on the outside with cellos at 2 o’clock from the rostrum. After a momentarily ragged start we were bombarded with contrasts and ideas including some delightful chorus duets between different sections. The basses bringing warm passion to the long dark brown notes echoing out over the strings in Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm was a particular high spot.

After the interval Handel’s Dixit Dominus was much more familiar territory and the orchestra had moved round with second violins now on the outside and soloists emerging from within the ranks of the choir. It was a treat to hear it sung with such sensitivity and panache – anyone who’s ever tried to sing Dixit Dominus in, say, a local choral society will know just how difficult it is with so many subsections and rapid passages interspersed with lyricism (was Messiah already in Handel’s head?) but this performance was masterly.

Apart from the arresting Conquassabit moments to treasure included Julia Doyle and Emily Owen (and chorus) singing De Torrente in via bibet with such vibrant emotion that Eliot Gardiner gave it to us a second time as an encore in acknowledgement of the rapturous applause at the end.

On a trivial note, understated as Sir John Eliot Gardiner is, he clearly doesn’t mind a tiny touch of tasteful, theatrical fun. I loved the scarlet cuffs on his velvet jacket which moved, fell and caught the light as he conjured all that magic with his hands.

Susan Elkin

ALL SAINTS CHURCH HASTINGS ORGAN CONCERT SERIES GORDON STEWART 30th August 2021

 

And so this year’s season of organ concerts came full circle rounded off in spectacular style by an organist who has become a regular feature and staunch supporter of this annual musical festival. Gordon Stewart brought his customary flair and expertise to present a number of works from different eras and traditions which highlighted the versatility and beauty of the wonderful “Father” Willis organ.

Opening with the Victorian Town Hall splendour of Hollins’ Concert Overture in C minor we knew we were in for another fine evening’s entertainment. Flute stops were to the fore in A Maggot – an 18th Century work by Thomas Arne in this popular later arrangement (including pedals) by Harry Wall. Mendelssohn’s championing of the music of JS Bach was reflected in the three contrasting works which brought the first half to a close – his Theme and Variations in D followed by Bach’s Trio on Herr Jesu Christ and Fugue in E flat (often known as “St Anne”).

Throughout the first half Gordon had conjured many different colours from the organ, with his careful selection of stops and use of the various divisions. This continued in the second half where some lighter items were also to be found alongside more classical and romantic repertoire. Noel Rawsthorne’s arrangement of Schubert’s popular Marche Militaire provided a suitably rallying opening number. This was followed by Pierne’s Trois Pieces – the Cantilene being a particularly haunting piece.

Providing a complete contrast, Prelude on Faithfulness by Dan Millar is a quiet reworking of the familiar hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness. We were treated to a particularly sensitive rendition as Mr Stewart expertly brought subtle shades of American gospel and theatre organ out of the depths of this English Victorian instrument, helped in no small part by careful use of the recently re-constructed tremulant. Staying in lighter vein but of a more upbeat English variety Goss-Custard’s Chelsea Fayre is a classical pastiche which works so well. This was a very nice piece of programming, highlighting the links with this composer’s family to the local area and connecting with pieces included in this performer’s opening concert in this year’s series.

It is not unusual to end a concert with a Toccata but it is rare to hear one in such a context that is completely unfamiliar. Composer F de la Tombelle and this work were both unfamiliar to me. As was explained, this piece bears more than a passing resemblance to the well-loved Toccata by Dubois but there was much of interest – and surprise – to be heard here.

The performance provided a suitably grand and virtuosic climax to another superb programme which was topped off by a lovely reflective Prelude on Annie Laurie written recently for the performer by Simon Lole.

Thanks were expressed throughout the evening to many people involved in the organisation of these concerts. Congratulations to all concerned for another highly successful series. Once again it has been demonstrated that there is a good audience for organ music of all kinds and that we have instruments in this area which are worth preserving and promoting. I look forward to the next series in 2022. Make sure to be there!

oldtownparishhastings.org.uk/contact/organ-concerts/

Stephen Page

Prom: 25 August 2021 Academy of St Martin in the Fields Joshua Bell

It’s a bold idea to intersperse Vivaldi’s early eighteenth century Italian take on the seasons with Piazzolla’s twentieth century Argentinian one. It makes you listen to, and hear both, with new ears. I rather liked it but I suspect it is a bit of a Marmite concept – especially as the four Vivaldi concerti were played in a very sparky, un-Baroque way – modern instruments, with a fair bit of vibrato, less cross string work than usual and percussive effects.

Joshua Bell’s interpretation of all eight pieces is far more collaborative than directorial. In the opening Vivaldi concerto (E major, La Primavera), for example, we heard some immaculately pointed duet and trio work with harpsichord, cello, violas and violin in an account which soared (and sawed) along with warm energy.

And – now transported to the sultry world of tango – I loved the mysteriousness of the gorgeous glissandi in the Piazzolla Summer in Buenos Aires and the glistening charisma of the cello solo (Caroline Dale) in Winter in Buenos Aires punctuated by Bell with, stroked-in off-beat harmonic notes. There was some fearsome playing in Piazzolla’s Spring in Buonos Aires too – a hot, full blooded sound with cat-like upward slides, col legno and bowing above the bridge for manic effect.

Joshua Bell has been Music Director of Academy of St Martin in the Fields since 2011 having worked with them since 1986. He clearly enjoys a warm relationship with the orchestra and told the audience at the end (before the encore – Gershwin’s Summertime arranged as a schmaltzy mini violin concerto) that he was deeply moved to be back with them after eighteen months of enforced deprivation. He wears his 53 years lightly, thick dark hair bouncing energetically in rhythm with his apparently rubber knees. It always seems awkward to me when a soloist leads from the front facing the audience because there are, perforce, lots of over-shoulder glances but it’s clearly an accustomed – and effective – way of working for these players.

The two works were presented as an interval-free single piece running 75 minutes in eight sections, alternating between Vivaldi and Piazzolla from the former’s Spring to the latter’s – and from the elegant natural sounds and colours of Italy three hundred years ago to the garish, noisy street life of South America much more recently It is widely thought that Piazzolla was inspired by Vivaldi and this performance leant heavily on the connection – with references in the music. In a concert which is not short of chuckles (the Pachelbel moment, for instance) there’s a good, almost Haydnesque, joke at the very end too. I won’t spoil it here – it’s available on BBC sounds for a month.

The Royal Albert Hall was fuller for this concert than I’ve seen it so far this season. Hurrah. We really are gradually getting back to normal.

Susan Elkin

ALL SAINTS CHURCH HASTINGS ORGAN CONCERT SERIES TOM BELL 23rd August 2021

The penultimate concert in the series saw Tom Bell’s return to Hastings. As usual he brought great enthusiasm and an engaging manner to give background to his highly varied repertoire. Apart from changes to the advertised programme we would not have been aware that Tom had recently been suffering from Covid.

Opening with enormous energy Bonnet’s Variations de Concert caught the audience’s attention from the start of the very arresting first chord. Tom’s dexterity on both manuals and pedalboard were evident from the outset in this virtuosic work. A more recent work Paulus’ A Refined Reflection (from Baronian Suite) showed off some of the more subtle colours this organ possesses. Early twentieth century French works made up the remainder of the first half. First, two contrasting movements from Dupre’s Le Tombeau de Titelouze followed by two very different but equally emotional works of Jehan Alain. Aria has a haunting quality which emanates from stillness. Litanies is the polar opposite. In Tom’s hands (and feet) the tension was increased with the furious and unrelenting main theme being played at breakneck speed, frenzied and insistent until the latter slow moving chordal sequence with its surprising harmonic turns. The effect of the final resolution after all this unease was electrifying. He was right when he said we would all need a glass of wine afterwards!

The second half brought several pieces which chime with one of this organists’s particular fields of interest – the English Victorian organ and its repertoire, both original compositions and transcriptions of orchestral works championed through the tradition of the Town Hall organ. WT Best’s arrangements of Meyerbeer’s fiery Coronation March and Bach’s Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland were presented along with a reflective Andante in G. Brahms beautifully understated Schmucke dich, O liebe Seele provided another real contrast in its sparse registration.

The concert began with what could be regarded as a showstopper and it ended with another. A favourite organ work of many, Franck’s final Choral No 3 in A minor again combines fast moving extrovert passages with moments of intense introspection. The Andante never fails to move me with its plaintive solo line against gently moving and sometimes unexpected chromatic harmony. This is then left behind in the final few bars as the piece reaches its climax with another series of harmonic tension before the ultimate release. This was another powerful and very sensitive interpretation.

Tom was coaxed back for a beautifully subdued chorale prelude by Jacques van Oortmerssen to send us on our way after an evening of thrilling and at times highly emotional music. We hope to see and hear him back again soon.

Details of the final concert can be found at

www.oldtownparishhastings.org.uk

Stephen Page

OPERA BRAVA – Tosca at Festival Theatre – Hever Castle 14th August 2021

Opera Brava had a beautiful summers evening at Hever Castle on 14th August when they performed Puccini’s Tosca. The seven musicians, occupied the left side of the stage, while the set for the singers filled the right, which affected the balance of sound considerably depending on which side of the audience one sat. Hats off to musical director, Robert Bottriell who conducted the whole from the piano in the centre.

The set consisted of a circular wall reminiscent of an ancient castle tower or church building, into which tables, chairs or statues changed the purpose. This did not afford a means for Tosca to leap from the walls, and so she was shot by guards at the end which was a little disconcerting for lovers of the opera, but understandable.

Natasha Day’s ‘I lived for Art’, was heartfelt and moving. Hearing Tosca in English added a different level of understanding and for me, ‘And the Stars were Shining’, sung by Dominic Walsh, became even more poignant .

Hakan Vramsmo was suffiently evil to elicit friendly boos from the audience at the end. The whole company gave a performance which grew in intensity of emotion , holding us spellbound to the cathartic end.

Sally Hick