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

ALL SAINTS CHURCH HASTINGS ORGAN CONCERT SERIES SIMON BELL 16th August 2021

SB-on-organ-gallery-resized

Simon Bell has contributed to this series a number of times over the years. As on previous occasions he demonstrated fine musicianship and delivered a very enjoyable, well structured and stimulating programme, particularly welcome for containing a good cross section of representative but lesser known organ repertoire.

Beginning with the German baroque we heard the lesser known Nicolaus Bruhns’ Praeludium in G coupled with two pieces by JS Bach- the technically sophisticated Vater unser im Himmelreich and the more playful Trio in G BWV 1027a. A beautifully registered Cantabile by Cesar Franck transported us to 19th Century Paris. We were then immersed in music by two notable figures from the English cathedral tradition from the late 19th/ early 20th Century. Bairstow’s Scherzo in A flat was a more substantial piece than the title might imply. Alcock’s Marche Triomphale was well placed at the end of the first half, a rousing and entertaining piece demanding lots of energy from the performer in this suitably spirited rendition.

The second half was given over to a single work. Guilmant’s Sonata VIII in A major is the last sonata from this prolific composer for the organ. The five movements contained much thematic and harmonic interest and gave Simon plenty of scope to show off many different tonal combinations, often brought about by very rapid and brilliantly executed stop and manual changes.

Vaughan Williams’ Rhosymedre provided a suitably contrasting relaxing encore following on from the full and frenetic sounds of the final movement.

I have said to many people over the years that Simon Bell is one of my favourite performers. I admire greatly his controlled technique and his ability to master the console with such accuracy and apparent ease. His programming and careful exploitation of the features of this particular instrument always make for a very satisfying listening experience. I hope we shall see him again.

Details of the remaining concerts can be found at

www.oldtownparishhastings.org.uk

Stephen Page

BBC Prom- Aurora Orchestra Nicholas Collon 11th August

Full biography - Aurora OrchestraEverything in this concert was beautifully played. First we had a warm, intelligent account of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Pavel Kolesnikov at the piano. Each and every one of the 24 variations was spelled out with sensitive attention to all those different styles especially in the pizzicato variation and the frenetic finale.

Then, eventually, we got magnificent performance of Firebird with every nuance lovingly leaned on. Because this is Aurora Orchestra (founded by Nicholas Collon in 2005) most of the players stood up for both works and the Stravinsky was played from memory which meant that players maintained continuous eye contact with the conductor and each other and that introduces a very unusual level of cohesion. Of course this is a narrative piece – it’s ballet music after all – and I have rarely heard the story telling so clear or so well articulated. The moment in this performance when the horn breaks in with that final haunting hymn-like tune will stay with me for a long time because Collon made it grow from the previous pianissimo passage like a flower bursting into bloom. The low level attempt at “staging” by altering the lighting, added nothing though. There was enough drama in the music. It needed no highlighting.

Having said all that though there were problems – at least as far I was concerned. The concert was introduced by Tom Service on stage. Now although I listen regularly to his informative Radio 3 programme The Listening Service and admire his fluent, knowledgeable enthusiasm, I don’t need Mr Service to tell me what I’m going to hear or to whip up applause with arm gestures like a pantomime character. I go to concerts for the music and really don’t care for any sort of chat in that context.

Moreover, In the middle of this concert we got a 20 minute musicology/music appreciation lesson – the sort of thing I associate with concerts for young audiences. It was well enough done in its way although I don’t relish being asked to hum. Service and Collon are an effective double act and Collon talked about Stravinsky’s use of intervals, illustrated by Aurora players quite interestingly. Orchestra members even sang a couple of songs which are part of the source material for Firebird. But you can get this sort of thing on the radio if you want it. In a concert hall I want music and in this case I would much preferred to have heard an extra work.

I also found myself irritated that in a concert billed as “no interval” audience members had to talk among themselves for 10 minutes while music stands and piano were taken off stage and various other bits of stage management were attended to. Several people, puzzled, tried to slip out and were turned back by staff.

It was, however, a good idea to run this concert twice. I attended the afternoon performance as part of a good sized audience. It was the later, evening performance which went out live on Radio 3.

Susan Elkin

ALL SAINTS CHURCH HASTINGS ORGAN CONCERT SERIES FRANCESCA MASSEY 9th August 2021

Francesca Massey, MusicianThe director of music of Rochester Cathedral, Francesca Massey, brought us a brilliantly executed recital of varied organ music in this latest concert in the series in Hastings Old Town. Throughout the evening she showed a great command of this particular instrument (despite having only met it earlier in the day) with well chosen registrations and some deft stop changes along the way.

Mendelssohn’s Prelude & Fugue in C minor opened proceedings and from the opening few bars it was obvious that this was going to be an evening of fine performances. Two pieces by Bach were featured, the gently lilting Trio super Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Her from the Clavierubung part III and later on the wonderfully contrasting Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C.

A rare treat was the inclusion of Nadia Boulanger’s Trois Pieces, hauntingly beautiful especially with the chosen registrations here. The Allegro from Symphonie II by Vierne brought a welcome reminder of the development of the Romantic French Symphonic style.

Further exploration of some of the quieter aspects of this organ was to be heard in the gorgeous Cantilene improvise, a transcription by Durufle of an early recording of his teacher, Tournemire. This was followed by the percussive and extrovert Fantasia II by Eben.

The final two pieces both had rhythm to the fore. Gardonyi’s Mozart Changes is a clever metamorphosis of classical Mozart into lightly playful jazz. The much more demonstrative Toccata alla Rumba by Planyavsky was a suitably thrilling conclusion to the evening.

A very entertaining and inspiring evening of a wide range of organ repertoire with excellent performances throughout.

Details of the remaining concerts can be found at

www.oldtownparishhastings.org.uk

Stephen Page

BBC Prom: Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins 7th August 2021

It was interesting programming – and apparently unprecedented at the Proms – to pair Pergolesi and Stravinsky as a way of highlighting the influence of the former on the latter. Of course we now know that the direct source material for Pulcinella came from his early eighteenth century contemporise rather than from Pergolesi himself but the influence is clear for all that.

We began with an exquisitely moving account of Pegolesi’s Stabat Mater with the blending of voices – Carolyn Sampson, soprano and Tim Mead, counter-tenor – so subtle that at times it sounded like a single person miraculously able to sing two lines. The crystalline, vibrato-free purity was magical too. Then there was the Quae moerebat in which Mead and the orchestra duetted with subtle sensitivity like a baton being passed back and forth. The final Quando corpus morietur – the ultimate moment in a mother’s anguish for her son – was an edge-of-seat, lump-in-throat moment and it’s just as well that Pergolesi provides a relatively jolly Amen after it or the very well deserved applause would have felt inappropriate.

Brabbins (a short notice substitute for Joana Carneiro) is an unassuming conductor and a safe pair of hands in the best possible sense. He knows exactly how to deliver this gorgeous quasi-operatic eighteenth century stuff with all its colourfulness, variety and precision. He beats time unashamedly and the cohesion was spot on.

Then after the interval came a real change of mood – marked even before it started by the entrance of Carolyn Sampson in scarlet dress with glittery jewellery rather than the simple sober black she’d worn for the first half. The original 1919/20 version of Pulcinella was a hybrid “ballet in one act with song” and this is what was performed at this concert although many of us may be more familiar with the shorter orchestral suite which Stravinsky arranged later in 1920.

Sampson was joined by tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass Simon Shibambu all of whom did a good job especially in the Andante when the three come together as in an opera by, say, Mozart until the tenor leads off into some unlikely harmonies before his challenging patter song – all delivered by Hulett with warmth.

I also admired the verve of all that off-beat pizzicato scrupulously played by SSO and stressed by Brabbins as the winds deliver their many solos in this sparky narrative tale of skulduggery and love told in a series of reworked eighteenth century. And the dramatic jazzy trombone solo is always fun. The unexpected glissandi rang out with wit, thanks to principal trombonist, Simon Johnson who earned his moment of individual applause at the end.

Susan Elkin

BBC Prom – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Vasily Petrenko- 4th August

Vasily Petrenko | IMG Artists

Reshaping was the theme of this concert: Ralph Vaughan Williams reinventing Thomas Tallis, Respighi constructing a concerto based on plainchant and Mendelssohn responding to the Reformation, complete with protestant chorale. And it was noteworthy for another reason: Vasily Petrenko is RPO’s new Principal Conductor and this was his first concert in that role although he has, of course, conducted RPO many times before.

The opening Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was glorious. The Royal Albert Hall acoustic and the distancing of the nine piece chamber orchestra on a higher level at the back ensured that every note and cadence sang with all the required wistful poignance. The musical rapport between them, the main orchestra and the string quartet at its heart ensured that we heard nuances that no recording ever captures.

Ottorino Respighi’s 1921 Concerto Gregoriano was new to me – and I expect to most of the audience. It gets few outings and this was its first performance at the Proms. It was also a Proms debut for diminutive Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji who is 38 but looks two decades younger. It’s a substantial, ambitious work, often modal and inspired by Gregorian chant. Maybe Respighi tried to pack too much in because it feels pretty indigestible. Perhaps he should have taken the reshaping even further and made it into two concerti. Nonetheless Shoji seemed to play it with aplomb although I have no other performances to compare it with. I liked her beautiful sostenuto double stopping in the Andante and the intriguing passages in the finale when violin and timpani were centre stage (put me in mind of the much later Patricia Kopatchinskaja cadenza for the Beethoven concerto) and another nice bit with horns.

Mendelssohn’s D major symphony, ‘Reformation’ has never quite achieved the popularity of his earlier ones which is a pity because there are some splendid things in it – although it is arguably the most disjointed of Mendelssohn’s first five symphonies. Under Petrenko’s strange, fluid (is he double jointed?), octopus-like finger waving control the chorale ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ was a delight and principal flautist Emer McDonough certainly deserved the applause Petrenko directed her way at the end. There was pleasing lightness from the woodwind in the Allegro vivace and admirable clarity and cohesion from the strings in the Andante. We got a deal of warmth and excitement too partly because of Petrenko’s ability to create – almost choreograph – the quietest possible piano and pianissimo passages.

Susan Elkin