Prom 18

Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 28 July

When Richard Morrison interviewed the Greek/Russian Teodor Currentzis for The Times, ahead of the latter’s Proms debut Morrison told us to expect “Beethoven as you’ve never heard it before.” And he was right.

This concert which featured the second and fifth symphonies gave us highly charismatic playing and two very individualistic, exaggerated performances. Anyone who can – upper strings, woodwind, some brass – stands to play in Currentzis’s original instruments band from Perm in Siberia. There are few chairs on stage. The result is a lot of passion and free movement so that the rhythm becomes visual as well as aural. Sometimes it’s almost balletic.

Tall slender Currentzis himself is pretty dramatic too. Clad in a short shirt, leggings and silver shoes he has a strange habit of starting the music very abruptly almost before he’s reached the podium. He uses a lot of baton-free impassioned gesture, including much expressive face work and sometimes, when he wants a piano so soft that it almost disappears, he stands virtually still. And of course he rarely does anything as pedestrian as beating time.

The quality of the sound is often magical. The sombre gentleness of wooden flutes, oboes and bassoons combined with gut (or some appropriate substitute?) strings ensures a warmth and intensity you don’t often hear in orchestras using modern instruments. And, as you’d expect, Currentzis takes every allegro at the sort of breathtaking speed  adherence to Beethoven’s metronome markings requires – although it’s not, even today, what we’re used to. I remember Klemperer’s Beethoven, for example, and most of us own recordings which take much of these works at a pretty leisurely pace, despite the efforts in recent year of conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington to change our perceptions.

High spots included the final Allegro molto in the second symphony which never lost a scrap of precision despite the dizzying speed. I also appreciated the well judged quiet wittiness in the larghetto. These people can make a simple scale sound like the pinnacle of musical inventiveness.

After the interval, the opening of the fifth symphony sounded joyous rather than portentous – just lots and lots of brio. The andante was very memorable too with a strong sense of duet between first and second violins, split across the space either side of Currentzis. There was also some lovely work from the wooden piccolo and some flamboyantly pointed dynamics in the final allegro. I was puzzled though, by a persistent vibratory buzzing in the fortissimo passages which I found distracting.

All in all it was a most interesting evening – and certainly one which will stand in the memory. I’m not sure, however, I’d want my Beethoven served up like this all the time. There is a faint whiff of arrogance about Currentzis. It came through in Morrison’s interview and I felt it from the podium – a sort of messianic self belief as if he thinks he has all the answers. There is room for as many interpretations and approaches as there are conductors and orchestras. Currentzsis’s take is an intriguing exploration of possibilities. It isn’t the last word on Beethoven.

Susan Elkin



Harmony One: Gifts from the Sea

Holy Trinity, Hastings, Lunchtime concert 25 July 2018

The anniversary of the Suffrage movement has brought us some enthralling events, one of which was presented at Holy Trinity last week as part of the Lunchtime Concert series.

In the first half we heard recent compositions by Gwyneth Walker and Sarah Quartel. Gwyneth Walker’s setting of a mystical love poem I will be earth is effective even if the text is often elusive. Gifts from the Sea is a longer piece which drifts and meditates on a woman’s many roles in life.

The least successful of her settings is of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar which tends to sentimentalise the poem, though it was persuasively sung.

Sarah Quartel’s song settings are more extrovert with a captivating Songbird and I Remember which could be straight out of a West End musical. We will hear more of Sarah Quartel’s work in the November concert.

The last three items proved to be far more exciting if only because a very large part of the audience joined the choir on stage for three suffrage pieces, opening with Dame Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women. Though her works suffered in the later part of the twentieth century she is beginning to be performed more widely, though we have yet to see a professional staging of The Wreckers.

The March was followed by the delightful Nana was a Suffragette – unaccompanied and decidedly impactful.

The concert concluded with Lucy Pankhurst’s setting of The Pankhurst Anthem but the assembled forces were persuaded to an encore with Rise Up Women – which we were all happy to endorse.

Debbie Warren conducted and gave the cheerful linking narration, and the choir were accompanied by Helen Ridout from the piano.

Concert continue until early September.




Prom 15

Royal Albert Hall, London

When you’re old enough to remember seeing Sir Adrian Boult and Otto Klemperer live it’s really quite exciting to see a conductor as young as Ben Gernon, 28, doing a fine job and reassuring us all that classical music is in safe hands for decades to come.

A crisp and intelligent performance of that glorious old warhorse, Beethoven’s Emperor concerto was the high spot of this concert – noteworthy for sensitive dynamics and a certain freshness, especially in the adagio.  Paul Lewis played it with warm maturity and precision.  And I always judge any performance of the E flat concerto by the handling of that beautiful link passage between the adagio and the rondo – maybe one of the most exquisitely lyrical few bars Beethoven ever wrote. Here the lingering rubato was nicely balanced before it danced triumphantly away.

The evening had begun with the world premiere of Tansy Davies’s What Did We See? – an orchestral suite from Between Worlds. A four movement suite extrapolated by the composer from her 9/11 opera, it is moving (once you’ve read the programme notes and understood what it’s about) and musically interesting. It uses, for example, a battery of unusual percussion and requires six percussionists to play gong, horizontal bass drum, cymbals sounded by passing a rod vertically through the centre hole, xylophone, glockenspiel, various rattles and shakers and a strange bowed bell – among many other things. There are evocative, chittering percussive sounds in the strings too – produced by specialist bowing and tapping as well as atmospheric glissandi. All this is, I suspect, pretty difficult to play but the BBC Philharmonic rose ably enough to the challenge.

After the interval came an uplifting performance of Brahms Second Symphony conducted without baton – as also for the Davies and the Beethoven. For the Brahms he didn’t use a score either. As always that creates a strong line of very direct communication between conductor and players. They gave us an articulately melodious first movement, a gently sombre contrasting adagio and an allegretto at cracking pace with emphasis on the busy strings, every note clear. Then came a resounding allegro with lots of energy, bounce and passion. The roar of applause at the end was well earned.

Susan Elkin

Prom 11

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 22 July 2018

Regardless of the quality of your hi-fi equipment, there are some works which need a live performance to do them justice. Mahler’s Eighth – the Symphony of a Thousand – is certainly one of them. No recording I have comes anywhere near the experience within the hall as the vast massed choirs explode into Veni, veni creator spiritus. The combined forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Chorus, together with the Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs, were mightily impressive not only in their enthusiasm but their accuracy and ability, in the second part, to take their dynamics down to a whisper.

The extended forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were joined by Jane Watts at the RAH Organ, giving it more flair than I recall the last time the work was performed here, and an assortment of more unusual instruments, including the sudden influx of mandolin and harmonium.

Of the soloists, Marianne Beate Kielland was a late replacement for an indisposed Christine Rice, but soared effortlessly and richly over the assembled forced behind her. Of the men, Simon O’Neill started somewhat tentatively but by the time he came to the extended tessitura of Doctor Marianus was in full helden-tenor form.

Thomas Sondergard managed not only to keep the vast forces together but created notable nuances of dynamic and tempi throughout, particularly in the extended descriptive passages in the second half.

The hall was packed, but thanks to the air-conditioning, was not as hot as it was outside.

I had taken a year off last year after over half-a –century of Prom going but I have to admit it was good to be back in the flesh.

BBC Prom 9

Royal Albert Hall, 21 July 2018

As soon as the 2018 Proms Youth Choir sang the first vibrant note of Eriks Esenvalds’s unaccompanied setting of Longfellow’s sonnet “A Shadow”, you knew that this was going to be quite an evening. Two hundred and fifty singers seated in one stage-right huge bank created a very warm strong sound which burst joyfully through the grandiloquent Royal Albert Hall acoustic. And if some of the exposed top soprano notes felt a bit strained, well I can live with that. It will be a long time before I forget this piece – a first performance – which ends with the choir whistling and the sound slowly dying away to the tinkling of bells and small glockenspiels in the hands of some of the choir members. The choir consists of University of Birmingham Voices, University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir, North East Choir and BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy. Each group had trained separately and then come together for a four day intensive rehearsal residency led by Chorus Director, Simon Halsey who conducted this fine performance.

Next, in a concert entitled War and Peace, came Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem played by Georg Solti’s World Orchestra for Peace which draws players from orchestras based in several continents. They’d sat quietly waiting in position during the opener. And if I may be allowed a “girly” observation it’s good to see a band in which the women dress in different colours. Visually very jolly. Coloured shirts for the chaps next, please.

Donald Runnicles splits his first and second violins across the stage which, as always, makes the lower strings sound more integrated – especially in the pizzicato section in the third movement’s lush (hopeful?) conclusion. The second movement was memorable too. With its col legno tattoo rhythm, snare drum and trumpet tune it really was Dies Irae and – in a piece which ensures that all four percussionists work hard for their fee – the decelerando ending with all those offset notes from different sections is not for the faint hearted. This lot brought it off with all the passion and panache it needs.

But the jewel in the crown was the magnificent account of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony which formed the second half – the choir now re-grouped evenly behind the orchestra. I have actually sung this piece in the Royal Albert Hall and so understand well the problems of the conductor being a very long way away – not an issue at this performance, partly because the impeccably trained choir sang without copies so that their responses were impeccably precise.

Runnicles gave us lots of sensitivity and colour in the first three movement with effectively exaggerated piano passages in the first and close attention to the detail with some very crisp string runs in the second – as well as making the very best of one of my favourite moments when the timpani take over from the bassoon lead and we’re into anticipation and excitement.  The lilting lyricism of the third movement was tenderly clear too with emphasis on delicate pairings of instruments which sometimes get lost in the texture.

Introducing the Ode to Joy theme at a brisk tempo and very softly left Runnicles with plenty of colourful, dramatics places to go and he certainly did – inspired perhaps by the fabulous quality of the choral singing (four good soloists too but somehow – seated between the orchestra and choir they seemed almost secondary in this performance). Verbal precision and very accurate pitching drove the piece along to its triumphant conclusion – any nervousness now forgotten as the sopranos sailed through those sublime, long high notes. Bravo to all concerned.

Susan Elkin



Heritage Opera: Cosi fan tutte

Bayham Old Abbey, Saturday 21st July 2018

How should one pitch Cosi? Given the vast range of approaches, starting with a tennis match in the early 1930s is as good as any. All the more so if this is carried through with some sense of style and a precise concentration on accents, cut glass and otherwise. The problem arises when one comes to consider how seriously we should take the events and the characters themselves.

In Sarah Helsby Hughes’ production comedy is the key and there is a tendency to skate over the emotional problems this may throw up. If anything the girls fall back on alcohol to excuse both their conduct and their changes of affection. Serenna Wagner’s Dorabella is gently over the top in smanie implacabile while Sarah Helsby Hughes’s Fiordiligi is upstaged in come scoglio by the arrival of afternoon tea. Their cut glass accents are maintained to the end, though it is difficult to accept two such upper crust young ladies giving house room to Yorkshire navies. For once, the appearance of two East European strangers might have made more sense.

David Jones gives us a suave Guglielmo who is very much at the mercy of Don Alfonso. This is one of the most curious reinterpretations of the score. If Don Alfonso is a valet, why does he seem to have so much power and is able to be so outspoken? There might be a case for making him Jeeves – underplaying his wit and insight while all those around him make fools of themselves – but this is not the way he is played. Neil Balfour sings Don Alfonso with aplomb but never quite seems in control of the situation. On the night, Nicholas Sales as Ferrando was indisposed and so his part was sung, off-stage, by Joseph Buckmaster. This was far less obtrusive than one might expect as the event used microphones for all concerned and so we had little idea where the sound was coming from except from the nearest speaker. It was a pity that the PA system seemed to have a mind of its own and arias broke down mid-way only to return just before the end. Fortunately I was close enough to hear the direct sound as well as the electronic.

Heather Heighways’ Despina was certainly one of the most convening characters of the evening. Her diction was impeccable and she made much of the new translation. Looking at the transformed suitors she notes ‘I’d rather snog my granddad’ which seemed totally in keeping, as did the transition of chocolate into martinis.

The small orchestral ensemble gave us a perfectly acceptable cut-down version of the score, though Benjamin Cox could have put a bit more pace into the opening scenes. Later events were better paced and the outcome convincing both musically and dramatically.

If soave il vento was the musical highlight of the whole performance, it could hardly fail as it gently floated into the late evening sky.

Bayham Abbey opera is always a date to put in the diary and we look forward to next year.

Ireland Piano Trio

St Luke’s, Brighton , Friday 20 July 2018

The programme for the evening was itself palindromic as well as concealing a finely crafted palindrome at the core of Peter Copley’s new work.

The evening opened and closed with an extended Piano Trio, with two shorter, single movement works either side of the interval. Moreover, these included works by each of the three soloists. The bar was set very high for the event as they opened with Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op70 No2 in Eflat. This gloriously humane work has a dancelike quality throughout, with extended almost Schubertian passages. If the finale is more strident it never loses its warm. Adam Swayne’s Hawker Hunter is a memorial piece to the Shoreham air crash. The highly aggressive opening draws on a large number of modern techniques in terms of the piano but these are all finely integrated into the score as a whole. As the piece progresses a sense of brooding calm overtakes it and we hear echoes of Purcell’s final pages of Dido and Aeneas. It is as if the music itself becomes the consolation, and is very effective.

After the interval we heard Ellie Blackshaw’s Piano Trio, which was receiving its fourth performance – noteworthy today for any new writing. Based on three, five-note chords which themselves reflect the names of the players, the work allows the individual instruments to develop their own voice and character in extended solo lines. This allows the work to breath and gives it a sense of openness and calm.

Peter Copley’s Piano Trio No2 is potentially his most extended work to date. Where the evening’s programme had been gently palindromic, this new trio is itself very closely structured. The opening Mesto mirrors the final Miserioso. The second movement Prestissimo likewise mirrors the fourth movement Leggiero and at the heart of the work the Adagio is a precisely worked out palindrome which draws to a single chord at its centre before reversing to the opening note. It is totally convincing and I suspect that any who had not had the palindrome pointed out to them would not be aware, so subtle is the writing. Nuances of balance and tempi create different aspects so that there is no obvious mirroring of earlier moments.

The opening movement brings an intense lyricism for all its sadness, though this gives way to a furious Prestissimo – think Flight of the Bumblebees on acid! – before the extended Adagio. The Leggiero is frequently jumpy and excitable, while the Allegro finale becomes almost playful in its communication both between the players and with ourselves.

The programming was quite right. The Beethoven reminded us of what the Piano Trio can be, and then three contemporary composers showed what can be done today, leaving us with the joy of Peter Copley’s work ringing in our ears.



St Nicolas Church, Pevensey

Free lunchtime Spanish Guitar recital by Richard Bowen at St Nicolas, Pevensey

Eastbourne-based classical guitarist Richard Bowen will be giving a recital at St Nicolas, Pevensey at 1pm on Thursday 26 July. He will play a selection of pieces by renowned Spanish composers Albeniz, Tarrega, Cardoso and Sor, as well as transcriptions of tunes originally composed by JS Bach for the lute and cello. There is no admission charge, but a retiring collection will be taken to contribute to the cost of maintaining the newly restored church building. Tea, coffee, wine and soft drinks will be available before the concert.

Churchwarden Simon Sargent commented “We are very pleased to welcome Richard Bowen to St Nicolas for our first guitar concert in recent years; the instrument should be well-suited to our excellent acoustics. We are also very grateful to Richard for generously offering to perform for the benefit of the church. Now that the building has been so beautifully restored, regular fundraising is essential to maintain it in good condition.”

Richard Bowen gained an ATCL Performance Diploma at Trinity College of Music in London in 2010. He studied Classical Guitar with the internationally recognised Segovia prize-winner, Paul Gregory, and won two categories in the Brighton Competitive Music Festival on Classical Guitar in the late 1980s.

Prior to undertaking classical studies, Richard spent three years at the Leeds College of Music, studying Jazz Guitar. He has worked all over the world in this capacity, and has backed many famous faces. For two years, he was the guitarist with the Frankie Vaughan Orchestra. He has done sessions on guitar for BBC television, and for individual singers, and performed in West End shows.  He is also active on the local jazz scene.

Richard’s classical work has been mostly for local music societies and churches such as The Chapel Royal, Brighton, St Nicholas, Brighton, St Leonard’s Seaford, and St Mary’s Eastbourne, where he was a festival artist in 2016.

He also performs at hotels for various functions where classical guitar is required, such as the Randolph in Oxford, and the Grand Hotels in Eastbourne and Brighton.

Lapwing Music Festival – August 31st to September 2nd, 2018

The Lapwing Music Festival is a unique event celebrating its third year in 2018.
Four outstanding artists will perform in the magical setting of the Coastguard Cottages, Cuckmere Haven. This year we are expanding to a beautiful marquee with views of the cottages, the Cuckmere Valley and the cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Only 60 tickets are available for each of these incredibly intimate recitals. Profits will be donated to the Cuckmere Haven SOS campaign, which seeks to save the cottages from coastal erosion.
Lapwing has an established tradition of hosting renowned solo artists to present deeply personal recitals. Our line-up of performers this year is truly exceptional. Maya Youssef is a Syrian virtuoso instrumentalist, hailed as “the queen of the qanun”. Manu Delago is a unique and innovative performer specialising in the Swiss hang drum who appears regularly alongside Björk and Anoushka Shankar. Lea Desandre is an exquisite mezzo soprano in demand across Europe, and will be accompanied by Thomas Dunford, a “rockstar” of the lute, who will also present a concert of solo Bach from his latest album on the Alpha label.
The festival features an exclusive world-premiere screening of Manu Delago’s 30-minute film ‘Parasol Peak’, a delicious buffet lunch of local produce on Sunday with a guest speaker to-be-announced (2017’s guest speaker was David Dimbleby), and the chance to learn more about the environmental and historical significance of this stunning location from representatives of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and Cuckmere Haven SOS. We look forward to welcoming people to Cuckmere Haven to help save one of the iconic views of England.
Artists for 2018:
Maya Youssef – qanun – Friday, August 31 7:30pm
Manu Delago – hang drums – Saturday September 1, 3pm and 7:30pm
Lea Desandre (with Thomas Dunford) – mezzo soprano – Sunday September 2, 3:00pm
Thomas Dunford – lute – Sunday September 2, 7:30pm
Recital Tickets £40. All tickets include drinks and canapés.
Buffet Lunch £35 – Sunday September 2, 12:30pm, Guest Speaker TBA

CDs / DVDs July 2018

James MacMillan: String Quartets
Royal String Quartet

If you do not already know these works may I suggest you approach them in reverse order? String Quartet No3 is the most abstract and, while deeply introspective, the most immediate and moving. The final movement, marked patiently and painfully slow, winds its way ever upwards and is both transparent and transcendent. The more complex and insistent first quartet entitled Visions of a November Spring shows the composer wrestling with new ideas and we seem to be in the midst of his battles. The second quartet, Why is this night different? is more immediate but still demanding.

However there is much to engage with here and will repay the efforts made.

Rachmaninov: Etudes Tableaux
Stephen Osbourne, piano

Two sets of nine Etudes Op 33 and 39 are recorded here complete and may be known to some listeners as five of them were orchestrated by Respighi. Though Rachmaninov provided programmatic notes for these they do not need descriptors to convince the listener, the range of moods and technical finesse being more than enough to engage the ear. I particularly enjoyed the final etudes of Op39 with the transition from the more refined No8 in D minor to the march of No9 in D major.

Schubert: Schwanengesang
Brahms: Acht Zigeunerlieder
Arranged for French horn and piano
Tim Thorpe, French horn; Christopher Williams, piano
NAXOS 8.573815

Much as I can appreciate the quality of musicianship here I do not warm to the arrangements themselves. Though the Brahms works better, the Schubert seems too extrovert and at times simply too loud for the score itself. A pity as the quality of playing is itself excellent.

Louis Spohr: Sonatas for harp and violin
Masumi Nagasawa, harp; Cecilia Bernardini, violin
BIS 2302

One of those unexpected delights – a disc full of lovely music, expertly played – and all totally unfamiliar.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Bayreuth Festival 1958, Wolfgang Sawallisch
ORFEO C 951183D

There are of course large number of recordings of Tristan but this has a great deal to recommend it. I have a personal interest as we saw Wieland’s production in Bayreuth in 1967 with almost the same cast. Windgassen and Nilsson are here in ecstatic form and were never better vocally. There are few singers today who can come anywhere near their emotional power and intensity while also providing such musical splendour. Wolfgang Sawallisch is at the height of his power here in the Bayreuth pit, and the sweep of the drama is hedonistic in its intensity.

A Courtly Garland
Robert Farley, baroque trumpet, Orpheus Britannicus, Andrew Arthur

The trumpet is essentially a military instrument but within the baroque period became incorporated into more refined and courtly compositions. This engaging recording traces that history with a large number of compositions, most of them unknown to me, though Frescobaldi and Corelli will ring more familiar bells. Orpheus Britannicus provide a wide range of accompaniment to Robert Farley’s bright baroque trumpet.

Beethoven: Three Piano Trios Op1
Trio Goya

I was immediately struck by the sound of the fortepiano which dramatically changes the impact and balance of these works – the three Trios Op1 – and rightly so for these are very early works by Beethoven. Though not his first compositions – Opus numbers are never terribly reliable – they do date from his early years in Bonn c1794 and are beautifully crafted. Violin and piano carry most of the interest as the cello part had yet to reach the prominence it does in subsequent works. An engaging and convincing recording.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas Vol7
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Some recording labels are doing a sterling job in producing repertory which lies outside the more familiar simply by issuing volume after volume for composers who produced reams of work within the same field. Though this may appeal more to the overt specialist it is pleasing to find new works which are just as musically enhancing as others within the genre. This is certainly true of this seventh volume of Haydn sonatas. Did he ever write a dull note? If he did it is certainly not here, and the five sonatas included are as convincing as any which have gone before, and splendidly recorded.

Richard Rodney Bennett Vol2
Howard McGill, saxophone, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson

This recording gets easier on the ear as it proceeds. Though known for his jazz compositions and influence, Rodney Bennett’s Concert for Stan Getz, written in 1990, is a modernist composition with jazz overtones rather than a jazz work in its own right. Perhaps the most immediate works here are the Serenade and the 1995 Partita which brings the recording to a graceful conclusion.

The Gates of Vienna; Baroque organ music from the Hapsburg Empire
Robert James Stove

The Nicholson organ now in the Catholic Church in Mentone, Australia, has been finely restored and sounds splendid on this new recording. It would be worth adding to your collection for this alone, but Robert James Stove has managed to find a number of baroque works here recorded for the first time.

The instrument has a convincing range of voices, and the edge and attack are splendid throughout.

I particularly enjoyed the range of pieces from Chaumont’s Pieces d’Orgue¸ to the anonymous Alia Chorea. If Zach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor brings a more sombre note, the brief Dance of Lazar Apor raises our spirits before the end.

Copies of the cd are available via the website

Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
Teatro di San Carlo, Jura Valcuha

This rather conventional production is nonetheless well sung and moves with some conviction, even if the sets are too big for the action within them. Emily Magee is a convincing Minnie and Claudio Sgura a totally convincing, swaggering, Jack Rance. Roberto Aronica sings well as Dick Johnson but his movement on stage is less than convincing given the heavy levels of naturalism required by the director Hugo de Ana.

Rossini: Le Comte Ory
Malmo Opera, Tobias Ringborg
NAXOS 2.110388

This production from Malmo Opera creates a fantasy world within which the the comedy unfolds and is amusing as well as musically pleasing throughout. Leonardo Ferrando is a sleek Ory but it is the chorus work and the splendid orchestral playing which keeps Linda Mallik’s production alive to the last note.