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

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


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

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


Paul Ayres 2020

London-based freelance organist and composer, Paul Ayres, brought much of interest to the latest concert in this popular series. In a very well-constructed programme the organist spoke about and then demonstrated two of his particular musical interests – baroque and early classical musical and melodic pop.

The evening opened with a suitably sparkling rendition of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. Two pieces from English polymath William Herschel followed and then a sequence of three Passacaglias – Buxtehude, Mendelssohn and in between a more contemporary take on the form from Nicholas Ansdell-Evans.

The second half begun and ended with JS Bach in recompositions by Paul Ayres. Trio on ‘Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe’ and Hey Jude cleverly wove together and developed the similar melodies of Bach (sometimes known as Arioso) and Lennon & McCartney. The closing Mostly Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor was a very exciting reimagining of the well-known piece again by the performer. By removing certain notes and reducing the phrasing the rhythmic energy created an effect that was mesmerising but also slightly uncanny as the familiar was transformed into something not quite as we knew it. I really enjoyed this!

The mashup that opened the second half also set the scene for the following four pieces, all combining Beatles songs with original material from Mr Ayres and using baroque and classical forms and structures to do so. Toccatina on Here comes the Sun certainly sparkled and formed a complete contrast with the brooding Adagio Cromatico on Michelle. Concerto on I want to hold your hand kept the melody more hidden at times with a full appearance at the end. Recitative on Yesterday saw a more reflective but highly decorated treatment.

A full-on cinema organ effect was achieved in the lovely punchy encore which delighted the audience at what had been a very innovative evening’s entertainment. It is to be hoped that some of the audience will have been pleasantly surprised by the way that different styles can be brought together to create something new and inspiring. A brilliant evening.

Information on the remaining concerts in the summer series can be found at

Stephen Page

BBC Prom: Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Maxim Emelyanychev- 1st August

Royal Albert Hall London - Theatre - visitlondon.comVery much a concert for discerning grown ups, this event presented Mozart’s last three symphonies as a triptych. It was imaginative programming which certainly highlighted new aspects of three very familiar 1788 works as well as linking them together – a journey, as it were, all the way from the Haydnesque slow E flat major introduction in number 39 to the glorious fugue which ends number 41.

Maxim Emelyanychev, principal conductor of SCO since 2019, is a flamboyantly balletic conductor, sweeping and crouching to coax the sound he wants: much more Gustavo Dudamel than Adrian Boult. Often he gestures the rhythm rather than beating time. Mostly it works although there were several ragged openings and one or two places when the orchestra simply wasn’t together. Having to seat distanced in deference to Covid probably doesn’t help with this although positioning horns, double basses, trumpets and tympani spaced on a higher tier at the back ensured that lots of detail came through. And it’s always good to see and hear second violins placed opposite firsts rather than buried in the heart of the orchestra. It enhances clarity.

I especially liked the wind work in the trio section of no 39 and the delightful decoration in the repeat. The horn interjections in the allegro, which usually go unnoticed, were rather nice too.

The highlight of the concert was its centre piece – no 40 in its navy blue G minor, packed here with plenty of edgy angst. I admired the circularity of Emelyanychev’s andante in which each wind solo grew seamlessly out of the one before and he gave us a strong, crisp allegro with sparkily dramatic general pauses.

And so to the grandeur of the C Major “Jupiter”, no 41 in which the recapitulation in the allegro sounded bright and fresh as did the arrestingly done development section. Emelyanychev gave us sensitive sweetness and some idyllic piano passages in the andante and really ran with the opening filigree texture in the final movement before the excitement of the fugue in which ideas are batted round the orchestra.

It was a thoughtful and enjoyable concert and, like everyone else, after a two year gap I was moved and thrilled to be back in the Royal Albert Hall with that unique Proms atmosphere.

Susan Elkin

The Selfish Giant – Garsington Opera at Wormsley July 2021

Opera Pavilion | Garsington OperaThe lovely big playing space in this lightest, airiest of venues so elegantly (operatically) sited in the leafy undulations of the green and gorgeous Wormsley estate, is quite a setting for a youth opera. And every single one of the 75 young cast members does it justice. So does the team of young stage managers and the young designers who helped find ways of bringing this piece to stage.

This show was originally planned for 2020 but we all know what happened then. In the event it’s a very poignant story for now. The eponymous giant throws the children out of his garden so that they have nowhere to play. Eventually – it’s a one hour piece – he comes to think otherwise and human mixing is restored.

How do you depict a giant on stage convincingly in a fairly simple production? You find a portly singer/actor – Matthew Stiff – with a resonant bass voice, dress him (initially) in black with a flapping raincoat and give him a larger than lifesize model head on a pole to hold – and it’s neatly effective. One of two professional singers in this show, he brings real warmth to the role as his character gradually learns and changes. The other professional is Barbara Cole Walton who plays a linnet, holding a model bird and singing mostly from the top of a ladder. She is gently, smilingly avian and her top notes are quite something.

The other lead is a child – talented Barnaby Scholes – who confronts the giant and looks very effective next to him because he’s small. Barnaby sings treble poignantly. Ultimately his character turns out to be stronger in spirit than body although he achieves his aim. That blend of feistiness and fragility is well captured

But the real high spots in this show are the choruses in which it’s good to see so many boys and an accomplished group of over-18s who sing a couple of choral numbers.

Jessica Duchen’s libretto is clear and unfussy (“The garden looks marvellous. I couldn’t do this alone”) and John Barber’s music is highly evocative. Words and music complement each other. Scored for a small group and played by a six-piece band drawn from the Philharmonia and conducted by Jack Ridley, every note conveys a message. I especially liked the scoring for a winter dance sequence with tinkly discords, faintly reminiscent of Britten, followed by a minor key passage and lots of tambourine.

The whole show, under Karen Gillingham’s practised directorship, is actually a bit of a miracle. Young people have had to audition and rehearse digitally for much of the time with masks and distancing requirements even when they finally got together. The over eighteens didn’t meet each other or the rest of the cast until 5 days before the show. Twenty four hours before curtain up the accordionist was “pinged” so the part had to be rewritten for keyboard tight against the clock.

One always hopes that these enterprising Garsington youth and community operas will live on especially as this one got only a single performance at Wormsley. The good news is that The Selfish Giant, which was co-produced by Opera North, will be staged at Leeds next year.

Susan Elkin


Summer festivals are always somewhat dependant on the weather playing ball. Last night’s Performance of Iolanthe at the Festival Theatre Hever Castle, enjoyed the perfection of a still summers evening, and Charles Court Opera gave us a most entertaining of renditions.

The fairies were light and playful, while the Lord Chancellor, Richard Stuart, added the weightiness of the judiciary without being dull for one second. His experience as diction coach for the ENO ensured that not a word of the patter songs was lost. No need for surtitles in this performance even if one was not a G&S enthusiast knowing all the words of the whole operetta by heart, as I suspect a lot of the audience were.

The director John Savournin and choreographer Jo Meredith, made sure there were no dull patches with anyone simply standing and singing, though nothing was distracting, upstaging the main action, as can happen. Points of stillness were all the more moving.

The quality of the voices on stage was exceptional throughout. Any performance by this company is not to be missed.

Sally Hick


One of only four UK dates this year, US based British organist, Iain Quinn, gave this latest concert in the Hastings series bringing a programme of mostly lesser known organ music. The opening piece, JS Bach’s three movement Piece d’Orgue, BWV 572, most notable for the dramatically different final Lentement. The remainder of the first half consisted mostly of shorter pieces mostly from the romantic period. The second of two Preludes by Czerny was an interesting variation on God save the Queen. Other composers here were Mendelssohn (Andante) and Robert Papperitz (Schmucke dich, O liebe Seele). Iaian Quinn’s own arrangement of a piano piece, Barcarolle, by Rachmaninoff was very effective and like many of these pieces allowed opportunities for a range of softer registrations to be employed. The culmination of the first half was Sonata in D minor by J Frederick Bridge, a long-serving organist of Westminster Abbey.

Unusually for these concerts the second half also included two further Sonatas, making three in total. Whilst Bridge’s was unashamedly Romantic, CPE Bach’s A minor, opening the second half and complementing the opening of the concert by linking father and son, took us back to the Classical period. The final Sonata for Organ was the most interesting for me, written for this organist by Wilfred Josephs, often known for his film and television work. Taking us into a very different sound world where dissonance and dramatic rhythm are very much to the fore it also includes a quirkily beautiful Andante with a wide ranging angular melody that is at the same time surprising and haunting. A very dramatic Toccata on ‘Victimae Paschali Laudes’ composed by the performer brought proceedings to an end. I was very pleased that this concert featured these more modern pieces alongside much older works as I strongly believe that audiences should always be introduced (in sensible proportion) to newer works which can sometimes be a little challenging together with more traditional fare.

A mellow rendition of Florence Price’s Adoration provided a surprising and also very welcome encore concluding another enjoyable recital. This was Iain Quinn’s first time at All Saints. He already seemed very at home.

Further details of the remaining concerts in the series can be found at

Stephen Page