Maidstone Symphony Orchestra Mote Hall 27th November 2021

Cheerful Rossini is a good, warm antidote when the weather’s wintry and we’ve just, two hours earlier, heard yet another alarming Covid press briefing. Brian Wright packed The Italian Girl in Algiers with all the fun and wit it cries out for especially through precise pizzicato, well controlled Rossini trademark accelerando passages and some lovely flute solo work (bravo principal flute, Anna Binney)

Then came the quiet modesty of Oliver Stankiewicz with Mozart’s Oboe concerto – we hear the flute version more often but, actually, it was written first for the oboe. Stankiewicz, principal oboe with London Symphony Orchestra and with a flourishing parallel solo career, enchanted an MSO audience four years ago with the Strauss concerto so it was a treat to see him back.

I loved his incisive creaminess of tone, especially in the adagio – one of Mozart’s many exquisite slow movements. In contrast he gave us lots of cheerful perkiness in the concluding rondo. His circular breathing is so fascinating to watch, that it’s almost a distraction particularly in his encore: two short movements (Pan and Arethusa) from Britten’s Metamorphoses.

In many ways, however, the most interesting work came after the interval in the shape of Brahms Serenade No 1, a substantial forty minute work. It’s very familiar from recordings and radio. But I had never heard it live before and Brian Wright told the audience that, at 75, this was the first time he’d ever conducted it in public. Perhaps because it has six movements, not thematically linked, it doesn’t feel like a symphony. Or maybe it’s because it explores different styles as it goes along. Either way it doesn’t get many outings. And it should.

It was, therefore, a real pleasure to hear MSO helping to put that right. The performance took a while to settle. I’m guessing most players hadn’t played it before. The most striking thing about the opening allegro was the pleasing work – rich and tuneful – from lower strings and although, it was arguably a bit understated, I liked the way the dance rhythms in the first scherzo were played. Then in the very “Brahmsian” central andante we got some gloriously strong sound from brass and woodwind although the upper string interjections were a bit wispy. The finest moment, for me, was the chirpy oboe (David Montague) and bassoon (Philip Le Bas) duet in the minuet before the work sauntered off to give us a vibrant second scherzo and a resounding Rondo allegro to finish.

Give it a couple of years, MSO, and then play it again, please. We need to hear this interesting piece more often

Susan Elkin

Joanna MacGregor with Brighton Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble In Association with Brighton Dome and Strings Attached 14th November, Attenborough Arts Centre, University of Sussex, Brighton

Frank Martin (1890-1974) is not a musical household name but an interesting discovery. A French Swiss composer, he founded, and worked with, the Geneva Chamber Music Society and this three movement Trio on Popular Irish Folk tunes dates from 1925 and feels nicely international. I liked the lyrical adagio, more or less a lament in the middle of the sandwich, led off of by Peter Adams whose cello sound is compellingly warm. And there’s a deliciously quirky account of The Irish Washerwoman in the finale with lots of minor chords and dissonance all played with witty aplomb.

I was amused by Adam’s right foot which has a definite tendency to tap – a habit I’m often tactfully asked to curb but it seemed to aid rather than blight this spirited performance. And I’m fascinated by Ruth Rogers’s violin technique. She plays as if her head is joined to the violin so that when she moves it all goes together, sometimes seeming as if she is almost moving the instrument against the bow rather than the other way round. Not that it matters … her sound is full of glorious colour.

Shostakovich’s bleak Piano Trio No 2 in E Minor Op 67 really does connote the horror of 1944 in its first movement. Rogers and Adams wrung every ounce of that stark opening statement with their uncompromising vibrato-free playing and piercing harmonics. This and the third movement largo alternate with manically fast movements. These three made sure we recognised the Klezmer influences in the final allegretto, played with real excitement on this occasion.

And so to the sunny uplands of A Major and Dvorak’s second Piano Quintet (1887) which came after a short interval and for which Joanna MacGreggor, Rogers and Adams were joined by Antonia Kesel (violin) and Jon Thorne (Viola). The pleasure the five of them took in playing it was conveyed by warm smiles between them at the points in the music which call for eye contact – and MacGregor, so well known as a soloist, clearly relishes playing chamber music and smiles all the time. Her spoken introductions are upbeat too.

There was a lot of precise passion in the playing especially in the final sharing of the melody in the first movement as it is passed round. Another high spot was Adams’s Dumka cello tune with everyone else quietly vamping until he was joined by Kesel’s second violin. The scherzo is, of course, often extrapolated and played as a standalone so it was good to hear it in context for a change. What lovely work Dvorak wrote for viola (his own instrument)! Jon Thorne – deceptively insouciant – really did it justice here. And them, everyone thoroughly warmed up, they gave us the finale’s finger-flying fugue at dazzling speed. Joie de vivre was message.

It was, overall, a well balanced concert with a whole range of moods, styles and techniques. And it’s always a pleasure to go to Attenborough Arts Centre (once you’ve remembered whereabouts it is on University of Sussex’s confusing, poorly signed campus) with its attractive, acoustically well designed auditorium and pleasant coffee shop.

Susan Elkin

Great Baroque: Playing with Fire Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra Brighton Dome November 7th 2021

Brighton Dome Concert Hall | Brighton FestivalThe BPO was scaled down to Baroque proportions with lots of soloists from within its ranks for this concert. It’s a pity the audience seemed to have scaled itself down too – there were far too many rows of empty seats. They missed an elegant potpourri of 18th and late 17th century music which mixed the very familiar (Winter from The Four Seasons) with less commonly heard pieces such as Rebel’s Chaos from Les Elemens. That said, most of the programme would have been known to most of the audience and conductor/Harpsichordist Robert Howarth spoke about each piece so it was all pretty accessible both to classical music newbies and children.

We began with Jean-Fery Rebel’s extraordinary, dissonant depiction of Chaos which anticipates The Rite of Spring by nearly two centuries. It’s amazing what you can do with a descending D minor scale. It was played here with due attention to the drama and some lovely piccolo playing, the trills soaring over the texture. For me, incidentally, this was a particular treat because, although I know the piece from recordings this was the first time I have ever heard it live. So thanks for that, BPO.

Later in the programme we got three concerti: Vivaldi’s Winter (played with lots of smiling warmth and exuberance by Ruth Rogers on violin) Brandenburg 2 and Vivaldi La Tempesta di Mare in F. I particularly liked Jonathan Price’s bassoon solo work in the latter. The collaborative spirit of these Baroque concerti in which everyone joins in until solo lines emerge is very attractive.

Ruby Hughes (a last minute stand in for ill-disposed Gillian Keith) sang four arias – one Purcell and three Handel. Standing behind the harpsichord so that she was in the heart of the orchestra and could see the principal cello, she found every ounce of passion in Dido’s lament giving us a very emotionally intelligent, haunting rendering. Then came Handel’s Piangero la sorte mia from Giulia Cesare and Lasshi ch’io pianga from Rinaldo both sung with tearful conviction. I was slightly less convinced by her account of Let the Bright Seraphim, such a well known pot boiler, which needed – I think – a bit more rehearsal with John Ellwood on trumpet.

The concert ended with the chirpy grandiloquence of Music for the Royal Fireworks (well, it was the weekend of 5 November after all). For this, thirteen wind and brass players appeared, most of whom we had not previously seen and heard, along with a timpanist. Every movement was nicely pointed with lots of dynamic colour. Although this is music most of us have heard a million times before and, probably, played all sorts of arrangements of it at different times, Howarth and BPO made it feel enjoyably fresh.

Joanna MacGregor is now BPO’s Musical Director and she’s admirably hands-on. Not only did she introduce the concert at the beginning but she, several times, personally arranged stands for soloists and presented a bouquet to Ruby Hughes at the end. Good to see such real involvement.

Susan Elkin

HASTINGS PHILHARMONIC CHOIR AND HASTINGS PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CHRISTCHURCH, ST LEONARDS-ON-SEA 6TH NOVEMBER 2021

Beginning in style with Mozart’s Symphony No 39 in E flat, the orchestra opened this concert which, although featuring the two groups was really the choir’s night! It was good to see the combined forces in action for the two pieces which followed – Morten Lauridsen’s five movement Lux Aeterna and the second Mozart composition of the evening, his well-loved Requiem.

A large and appreciative audience soaked up the music in the wonderful Victorian Anglo-Catholic splendour of Christchurch. At this time when it is still an act of faith to plan a performance on this scale and when there has been so much disruption and uncertainty for musicians it was a treat to experience this live in-person event involving so many talented and commited musicians.

The two choral works, both settings of liturgical memorial words carried additional poignancy in this remembrance season as the evening was also dedicated to three supporters of the choir who have died in recent months. One of these is Dr Brian Hick, founder of this website.

I was particularly looking forward to hearing the Lauridsen as it is a late 20th century work, a complete contrast in musical language to the works by Mozart but sharing the affinity of the text with that of the Requiem. I was a little disappointed, not for lack of commitment or effort on anyone’s part, but because of the imbalance in volume between choir and orchestra. At times this caused discrepancies in tuning and some uncertain entries. This is not easy music and even in the more subdued passages careful and confident placing of pitch is essential. There were some beautiful moments, most noticeably when the orchestral forces were greatly reduced, proving that the choir was capable but simply disadvantaged on this occasion.

There were similar issues with balance in the Requiem but the choir’s familiarity with this work meant that, despite this, it was carried off with confidence. The four excellent soloists each gave fine controlled performances producing some lovely contrasting sections throughout. I was surprised however that I found the line-up of folder, book and two different coloured I-pads quite distracting! There were some spine-tingling moments, noticeably the beginnings of the Lacrymosa and Sanctus. The overall performance from the combined forces here proved to be a satisfying conclusion to an enjoyable evening under the familiar baton of Marcio da Silva.

It is good to see the Philharmonic Choir back, performing a mixture of the well-known and the less performed, together with another great outing for the Philharmonic Orchestra. Hopefully something creative can be done to address the balance issue in the future so that the two groups will continue to flourish and collaborate.

Further information for both groups may be found at
https://www.hastingsphilchoir.org.uk
https://www.hastingsphilharmonic.com

Stephen Page

Oxford Lieder 2021 Into the Woods

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Kitty Whately
Neil Balfour (emerging artist)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)

This imaginatively programmed all-American concert moved from Copland and Barber to an entertaining selection of Sondheim moments including several from the titular Into the Woods. Along the way we also got Rogers and Hammerstein, songs by William Bolcom and in the crassly obvious token woman position, one by Margaret Bonds.

Whately, now at the top of her game can do pretty much anything. There was real tenderness, for example, in her rendering of Barber’s Nocturne and Sleep Now – unfussy performances in which she simply stood, sang and let the music do the work. Half an hour later she was bobbing up and down behind the piano for a hilarious series of mini cameos in wigs and furs during Buddy’s Blues.

Billed as an “emerging artist”, Neil Balfour worked adeptly with Whately in several duets as well as delivering a warm account of O What a Beautiful Morning and a very accomplished one of William Bolcom’s Black Max – a compelling minor key swing number which Balfour really made his own.

There was lots of chemistry between the two of them in Sunday in the Park with George, which like most Sondheim numbers is quite long and needs careful sustaining and balance. Whately really nailed the model’s frustration and Balfour had Seurat’s irascibilty perfectly. I admired the way Balfour and Whately did Happiness too – with two sets of thoughts going in different directions and then coalescing musically.

The best moments of the evening though were Whately singing Mr Snow from Carousel – all coy, pragmatic love – and her well judged rendering of Could I Leave You in which she makes it clear that yes she could and she isn’t going to miss those “dinners for ten – elderly men – from the UN”.

All this was greatly enhanced by Anna Tillbrook’s sensitive work on piano. And some of the piano writing here is complex and subtle – or witty. I loved the “knitting needle music” in Black Max, for instance.

Susan Elkin

Dichterliebe Oxford Lieder Festival 2021

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Schumann’s 1840 song cycle Poet’s Love, with its wealth of colour and mood across sixteen song settings of Heinrich Heine’s poems, is ideal for a lunchtime recital. And baritone Thomas Olemans makes a fine team with pianist Malcolm Martineau assisted by the latter’s highly skilful masked page turner/slider. These songs are definitely duets even down to the moving piano coda delivered with sensitivity at the end.

In places Olemans injects a quality of smiling wondrousness into his high notes making the audience feel the gentle personal drama. Elsewhere we got gravitas and fortissimo in the more declamatory numbers as well as pleasing lightness in the faster songs and anger where required. He’s certainly a versatile singer and actor.

This 60 minute concert opened with songs by Niels Gade, a Danish friend of the Schumanns and several of Clara’s songs. I especially liked Olemans’s warm passionate delivery of Der Mond Still Gegangen and the way he and Martineau segued from Clara’s Die Stille Lotosblume into Dichterliebe.

The setting was, incidentally, both attractive and apt with the two performers on a platform in front of St John the Evangelist Church’s carved tracery rood screen so that natural light and the green Trinity altar hangings providing a very pleasing backdrop.

I don’t care for digital concerts in general but it wasn’t logistically possible to get to Oxford this week. It is, however, a real treat to see on screen the live audience there in the church – a great improvement on the recent past and a sensible idea to offer both options.

Susan Elkin

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra Mote Hall 9th October 2021

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Rarely have I watched a performer who exuded as much palpable pleasure in the music as Mayumi Kanagawa playing Bruch’s first violin concerto. She smiled several times at the leader during the piece and rocked appreciatively during the orchestral passages. Perhaps, since this was MSO’s first concert for 20 months, she was as delighted to be playing live as the audience was to be there.

Technically pretty impeccable, Kanagawa gave us some fine cross string work and double stopping and, later, dug out lots of romantic richness in the allegro moderato. The orchestra, meanwhile, accompanied her warmly. I occasionally hear in colours and perceive G minor as a navy blue key. Kanagawa’s simple dark blue outfit reflected that so perhaps she does too.

Her showstopper encore, Paganini’s The Hunt, was very welcome icing on the cake. Played with expert insouciance and lots of colour, her flamboyant double stopping and “impossible” leaps certainly impressed this indifferent amateur violinist.

The concerto was sandwiched between an incisively dramatic account of Beethoven’s Coriolan overture and, after the interval, Mendelssohn’s third symphony “Scottish”. I was pleased to note that Brian Wright took the whole symphony more or less attacca so that there was no space or temptation for audience applause between movements. It makes the work so much more cohesive than if it’s chopped up. Despite occasional fragments of raggedness, it resounded with melodious energy. The management of dynamics un the opening movement created a lot of lively interest and I liked the way Wright let the wind interjections, especially bassoon, shine through the texture. We were also treated to an elegantly understated second movement and as for the adagio … a conductor I was working under once commented: “This is one of the most sublime melodies ever written but you musn’t milk it”, MSO didn’t … but I still felt something in my eye at the end.

Yes, it’s utterly brilliant to see MSO in action again. They still sit at separate stands which makes page turning difficult for string players and the distancing changes the sound slightly but it’s hundreds of times better than the long, long silence we’ve all been through.

Susan Elkin

CDs September 2021-2

A PIAZZOLLA TRILOGY
KAREN GOMYO, violin
STEPHANIE JONES, guitar
ORCHESTRE NATIONAL DES PAYS DE LA LOIRE
BIS-2385 63’03

Tango seems to be all around us at the moment and this disc is a treat for anyone who loves music with infectious rhythm, melodic interest and slightly exotic harmonies. For those with a particular interest in the music of Astor Piazzolla this is a wonderful collection showcasing three of his more substantial works. Opening with his own take on Vivaldi, Cuatro Estaciones Portenas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) and ending with the popular Histoire du Tango this CD also includes Etudes Nos 3, 4 and 5 from Tango Etudes. These arrangements for violin make for excellent performances from Karen Gomyo and her fellow performers.

PALMGREN – COMPLETE PIANO WORKS 3
JOUNI SOMERO, piano
GRAND PIANO GP869 71’25

Containing a number of world premiere recordings this CD continues Grand Piano’s survey of this early 20th century writer for the piano. Palmgren’s work covers a range of styles and i some charming and interesting repertoire for the pianist. The music here ranges from a miniature, Tanssiaskeleita (Dance Steps), lasting just 20 seconds to the twenty minute suite, Sol och Skyar (Sun and Clouds). A student of Busoni, much of his music is descriptive, often drawing on local folk influences and crossing the boundaries of ‘classical’ and ‘light’ music. An interesting concluding work is his Intermezzo for the Left Hand.

DUTILLEUX – PIANO WORKS
JEANNE-PIERRE ARMENGAUD
GRAND PIANO GP790 70’13

Remaining with the piano but with a very different programme this CD presents 3 larger scale works by a composer also writing in the twentieth century but in a much more experimental style. Programmed chronologically the CD begins in the 1940s with the Piano Sonata which takes the traditional three movement structure but allows for much freedom of expression in terms of all the other elements of the music. The composer’s own arrangement of the ballet music from Le Loup (The Wolf) comes next, followed by Three Preludes, written at different times but satisfyingly grouped together here as they were when first published many after their composition. A very interesting disc of lesser known twentieth century piano repertoire expertly realised by Jean-Pierre Armengaud.

ARVO PART – STABAT MATER
CHOR DES BAYERISCHEN RUNDFUNKS
MUNCHNER RUNDFUNKORCHESTER, IVAN REPUSIC, conductor
BR KLASSIK 900335 59’24

Anyone who knows the work of Arvo Part knows that he composes sublime music that plumbs the depths and scales the heights of emotion. Here is a wonderful programme of choral and orchestral music which together creates an intensely moving and spiritual experience. The title work completes the CD which begins with the sparse textures of the instrumental Fratres. Also included are Silouan’s Song, La Sindone, Summa and Fur Lennart in memoriam.

BRITISH SOLO CELLO MUSIC
STEVEN ISSERLIS, cello
MISHKA RUSHDIE MOMEN, piano
HYPERION CDA68373 78’28

The cello, to me, has a purity of sound that makes it ideal for unaccompanied solo performance and for a relaxing listening experience. Sometimes mournful, at other times more joyous, the programme here, given life with such commitment by the master of the instrument, Steven Isserlis. Britten’s Cello Suite No 3 is complemented by Frank Merrick’s Suite in the eighteenth century style together with some shorter items including works by Walton, John Gardner and Thomas Ades.

INFINITY
VOCES 8
DECCA B0034074-82

The cover text invites the listener to “escape into another world”. This collection of wonderfully evocative performances from Voces 8 certainly provides an oasis of tranquil and sublime contemporary choral music. Described as a “space-inspired concept album” it includes music by established choral composers including Ola Gjeilo and many more often associated with other musical genres including film and electronic music. Some tracks are a capella, whilst others include additional sparse instrumentation. A beautiful album that really has the capability to transport the listener somewhere beyond. It contains many interesting and unusual pieces.

BEST OF TURKISH PIANO MUSIC
IDIL BIRET, piano
IDIL BIRET ARCHIVE (distributed NAXOS) 8.504058 (4CDs) 4”58’38

It is not often that a collection as large as this contains music that is all completely unknown to the reviewer. Here, over 4 CDs, is an archive release of recordings by the same pianist spanning over 60 years. All the music is by Turkish composers and together this collection presents a fascinating survey of music that has come about as a result of the meeting of the particular traditions of this region and the encounter with the so-called western classical tradition. As well as repertoire for solo piano there are pieces for for piano and other instruments including four concerti (Saygun, Isikozlu, Erkin and Pars). This is a set that will be a very useful reference for those wishing to explore new repertoire as well as providing plenty of interest to enjoy.

SHALL WE GATHER
LUCAS MEACHAM, baritone IRINA MEACHAM, piano
RUBICON RCD1071 52’54

This programme was put together as a response to the situation the world has found itself in with the pandemic and social distancing. The husband and wife team give some heartfelt performances of a variety of American art songs. There are some particularly interesting musical settings by composers including Aaron Copland, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Florence Price, William Grant Still and Kurt Weill as well as some less familiar names. There is a very positive focus here on what draws people together. Although the accompanying notes emphasise these values, as a non-American I still find the overt nationalism of the opening track difficult to listen to and wonder if it would have been better to leave this unsung! Proceeds will go to the Meacham’s Perfect Day Music Foundation which supports young musicians and encourages an appreciation of composers who have been ‘historically excluded’.

SP

HASTINGS PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA White Rock Theatre Hastings 21st September 2021

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At the beginning of the 6th season for the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra it was lovely to be in the surroundings of the White Rock Theatre for this concert, under the direction of conductor Marcio da Silva. In the earliest years this building (then the White Rock Pavillion) was home to another local orchestra, the Hastings Municipal Orchestra. The Municipal’s first conductor, Julian Clifford died in 1921 and to mark the centenary the opening piece in this concert was Clifford’s own Meditation. It seemed very appropriate to hear this music in these surroundings played by the original orchestra’s descendant. Although a later genre this piece had something of the British Light Music feel. I do wonder if it would have been better for this piece to appear slightly later in the programme rather than being the opening item. Further items in the programme had connections with concerts conducted by Clifford in the Municipal Orchestra’s earliest years.

Two of Mendelssohn’s works followed, their pairing emphasising some melodic links between them and also Mendelssohn’s historic importance as a popular composer. First we heard A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, followed by the Violin Concerto in E minor. It was in this that I felt the orchestra truly came alive, aided in no small part by the passionate and, at times, virtuosic playing by soloist Emil Chakalov. It was obvious that his fine performance was much appreciated by the audience.

Prior to this I felt that the orchestra sounded a little distant, possibly the result of the large draped curtains at either side of the stage and the alterations made to the ceiling when the building was redesigned decades ago. The positioning of the soloist that bit nearer to the audience seemed to also enhance the whole ensemble sound. Thankfully this more immediate sound continued into the second half with the climax of the concert, Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 in C minor. This well loved piece had obviously been keenly anticipated by many in the audience and gave a suitably thrilling ending to a fine evening of music.

It is wonderful to be able to hear this youthful and professional orchestra without having to travel to a distant destination. It is good to see the local musical heritage being valued and celebrated as the tradition of music making develops further. In this larger venue it is to be hoped that audiences will continue to grow as the season unfolds.

Further information at www.hastingsphilorchestra.co.uk

Stephen Page

Bromley and Beckenham International Music Festival Concert 4

Credit: Andrej GrilcThe last of the four concerts which formed this weekend-long festival was a beautiful piece of synergistic programming. First we got Schumann’s Piano Quartet op 47 written in 1844 when the composer was 34. Then came Piano Quintet op 34 by Brahms first aired in 1865 when its composer was 32. Of course the two men knew each other well. Schumann championed the young Brahms and, famously, Brahms’s fondness for Clara Schumann lasted for the rest of his life.

And yet, separated by only 21 years these two works are very different and the group of top flight musicians led by Benjamin Grosvenor at Bromley Parish Church made sure that we noticed every nuance.

The Schumann was played by Grosvenor with Hyeyoon Park (violin). Timothy Ridout (viola) and Bartholomew LaFollete (cello). So attuned to each other are they that it felt like eavesdropping on a conversation – there is something very personal about chamber music played well. I admired the warm intensity they brought to the opening movement, the precise delivery of the scampering semiquavers in the scherzo and the majesty of the fugue in the finale. The highlight though, as usual with this work, was the sublime lilting 3|4 melody of the andante which these four played with gentle passion.

A different line up for the Brahms meant that Grosvenor and Park were joined by Raja Halder (who directed this delightful festival) playing second violin and Laura van de Heijden on cello. It was a fine rendering of this rather sombre work with lots of F minor melancholy delivered with plenty of dramatic tension in the first movement. In his introduction Grosvenor mentioned that the andante is clearly influenced by Schubert and yes, this quintet leaned on the rueful Schubertian insouciance before settling into Brahmsian richness. There was some especially lovely cello work from van der Heijden. And so to the portentous and then frenzied scherrzo played with all the right energy and stamina before the soulful finale opening. It was the contrasts they handled so well – taking this movement through its dance melody section to the well articulated anger at the end.

One of the remarkable things about this feisty festival is that, although these players clearly know each other very well they don’t work together regularly as a quartet or quintet – and yet the results were stunning. Lucky Bromley and Beckenham. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Susan Elkin