International Interview Concerts

The International Interview Concerts came on line for the first time on Sunday 6 December to link up musicians across Europe to play and talk about their experiences and memories of Christmas. The event was hosted by Timothy Chick, who also did a valiant job linking up the various artists as well as interviewing them as the evening proceeded.

Of course, like so many events today, we were not only at the mercy of the legal restrictions but also the available technology. For some of the time this worked well but there were other occasions when the sound quality did not do justice to the professional standing and competence of the players.

The evening opened with violinist Kamila Bydlowska playing versions of  ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’ & ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, with some fine double-stopping on display. This was folloed by the Bukolika Piano Trio (Gabriela Opacka  violin – Joanna Gutowska cello – Anna Szalucka piano) bringing us a suite of arrangements of familiar carols –  ‘The First Noel’, ‘Stille Nacht’, ‘Jingle Bells’and the traditional Polish: ‘Lulajze Jezuniu’ (‘Lullaby Jesus’).

Kamila returned to play the Polish carol ‘Oh Tiny, Tiny Baby’.

As a contrast we now heard from Mexican singer Jorge Carlo Moreno accompanied by Varvara Tarasova at the piano. They opened with the Spanish carol ‘La Virgen Lava Pañales’ followed by a piano solo – Tchaikovsky’s ‘December’ from The Seasons – and ended with ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ sung in Spanish.

Kamila followed this with another Polish carol arranged for violin but the final items fell to pianist  Olga Paliy who brought us Holst’s ‘Chrissemas Day in the Morning’, Debussy’s ‘The Snow is Dancing’, and concluding with a fine arrangement of the ‘Carol of the Bells’.

In between Timothy Clark chatted to the artist about their own experience of Christmas music and particularly of their earliest memories of Christmas. It was fascinating to hear the very personal memories from across continents and the different traditions they keep within their own families.

Let us hope that the technical side can be improved so that the experience is closer to a live event in future as the venture itself was certainly engaging.





Handel: Messiah

Christ Church, St Leonards-on-Sea, Saturday 05 December

HPO Singers, Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque
Helen May soprano
Isabelle Haile soprano
Laura Fleur mezzo-soprano
Nathan Mercieca countertenor
Kieran White tenor
Thomas Kelly tenor
John Holland-Avery baritone
Marcio da Silva conductor/baroque guitar

This was the first live concert I have attended for ten months so I think I may be forgiven for shedding several tears when the notes of the “Sinfonia” died away in the atmospheric half light and Kieran White opened with “Comfort ye my people”. It set the tone for the whole evening: a lot of fine singing, respect for some of the most arresting, uplifting music ever written and – given the privations of this strange year – an unusual sense of warm gratitude in both (distanced) performers and audience.

Working with a small group of singers – only four basses – and conducting, with a lot of originality, from his baroque guitar Marcio da Silva found much clarity and precision in the chorus numbers although the necessary spacing created a challenge – the basses were to the right of the orchestra at the front with tenors to the left and sopranos and altos at the back. This placed the band in the middle of the choir and meant that sopranos were a long way from the basses, and the altos from the tenors. Inevitably there were occasional timing glitches but none of them detracted from the overall achievement.  The unaccompanied “Since by man came death” was perfectly, movingly together, however and the understated opening to “Amen” worked really well because it left so much scope for joyful crescendi as it developed all the way to that magical, climactic top A from the sopranos, nine bars before the end.

It was a concert full of ideas too. First there was the use of a tiny Baroque orchestra who played impeccably on original instruments (or replicas)  with Marcio da Silva on guitar and Petra Hajduchova on harpsichord.  I grinned to see Marcia da Silva morph into percussionist and singer during “Hallelujah”, leaving Edmund Taylor to direct from the first desk. Versatility is everything at the moment.  I also liked the idea, in this of all years, of sharing the solo work among seven soloists rather than four: more opportunities for more talented people.

Among the many high spots was Laura Fleur’s smiling “O thou that tellest”. She has a lower register like spiced hot chocolate. The contrast she later brought to the stark agony of “He was despised” was outstanding. I also admired the elegant, measured decoration from countertenor, Nathan Mercieca in “He shall feed his flock” and John Holland-Avery is a very arresting, dramatic singer in “The Trumpet shall sound”. Then there was the “sounding” itself with Louis Barclay’s on natural trumpet – another delightful moment.

Well it isn’t Christmas without hearing a decent Messiah and for a long time it looked as though this was going to be my first Messiah-less Christmas for many decades. So thanks HPO for making this happen, despite all 2020’s problems, and for the stunningly beautiful Christ Church which supports HPO by allowing them to use the premises without charge.

Susan Elkin


South Downs Summer Music: Benyounes Quartet

The South Downs Summer Music Festival may have had to be cancelled like so many other events this summer but St Andrew’s Church in Alfriston welcomed a live concert with a reduced, socially distanced, audience in September. The concert was recorded live and was broadcast on their new website on Sunday 8th November.

It was given by the Benyounes Quartet, who were joined by Rebecca Jones viola, Reinoud Ford cello in Brahms Sextet no.2 in G major op.36.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat major op.12. Though the key might suggest a sunny work, the first movement has a lot of darker moments in the scoring, and many times of genuine reflection. The second movement brings a bright cantabile-like melody with a central section straight out of the Dream. The final movement brings energy and a lively rhythmic bounce. The acoustic in St Andrew’s certainly helped the balance and warmth of the strings.

The Brahms may be a more overtly romantic work but it also showed some Mendelssohnian lightness and fluidity, particularly in the final movement.

The opening movement has the weight of a string orchestra, with particularly strong writing for the first cello. The scherzo has a fierce dance at its heart before the meandering lines of the slow movement.

This was a finely balanced event – just a pity not more people were able to enjoy it live. Hopefully next year we will be back to normal.

Brighton Early Music Festival – week two

The second week of Brighton Early Music Festival proved to be even more exciting than the first. I have to admit that, until I saw the programme, I had never heard of a Trumpet Marine, and would quite have misunderstood the term without considerable research. Friday night’s introduction from the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments was a revelation. The photographs go a long way to show the instrument which is neither trumpet nor marine, yet sounds remarkably like a trumpet both in its upper and lower ranges. Regularly used in the middle-ages and still found in performance in the seventeenth century – there was a concert at the Fleece Tavern in 1674 for four Trumpets Marine – it was used as a substitute for the trumpet particularly by nuns who regarded the actual trumpet as too military but wanted an instrument with the same weight and authority – which it certainly does. We heard a number of different pieces, some of which fell strangely on the ear as the tonality was not modern, but two arrangements of Irish tunes were particularly pleasing.

Saturday afternoon brought James Duncan from the Sussex Wildlife Trust together with recorder virtuoso Piers Adams to consider the way birdsong has affected composers. Wandering in the Sussex woodlands they sought out live bird song and Piers played melodies which reflected nature and also ditties written for tame birds to imitate. Unfortunately the sound was totally out of sync during the broadcast which at times made it difficult to follow.

I was looking forward to Saturday evening and catching up with Joglaresa again. We had seen them live about two years ago and been very impressed. Seeing them again was certainly not a disappointment as their delight and enthusiasm are infectious. Moreover, I suspect that having to do the performance via the web gave them a freedom they would not have in a conventional theatre. The use of animation, often tongue in cheek and frequently naughty, was captivating and the music making was always up-beat and engaging. There is no sense of historical recreation here even though what we are hearing is totally accurate and precise to its period.

By total contrast Sunday afternoon brought us Sweet Ayres of Arcadia with Gwendolen Martin soprano, and Din Ghani, lute & baroque guitar. They were performing in Wilton Hall, the home of Mary Herbert, sister to Sir Philip Sidney. The quiet intimacy of the Jacobean room was absolutely right for the song settings which included Robert Johnson’s Have you seen but a white lily grow and William Lawes Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Given the range and quality of what we had experienced across the six days the final event should not have surprised but it did. The Four Faces of Gaia was the longest event of the Festival and brought together musicians from across the world, opening with a breath-taking rendition of Tallis’ Spem in Allium with all forty singers on screen in front of us. Glorious! From here we moved to Africa and music for voice and kora, lovingly performed by Sura Susso, followed immediately by North Indian Classical dance with kathak dancer Jaymini Sahai, sitar and vocalist Debipriya Sircar and table player Sanju Sahai. These performances were filmed in Brighton Unitarian Church and I doubt if the dancing would have been as effective with an audience taking up most of the space. The sense of joy and freedom, to say nothing of the amazing ability to convey the narrative and emotion of the Salutation to Mother Earth, was amazing.

We heard songs from Azerbaijan and from the Seraphic Jewish tradition before appearing to return almost to Tallis with a performance from The Lacock Scholars and The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble directed by Deborah Roberts in the vast acoustic of St Bartholomew’s, Brighton.

The Epilogue was equally unexpected. We had heard Jeremy Avis a number of times during the Festival and his composition The Whispering Dome brought together not only the African and Indian musicians but also the BREMF community choir and the strong ecological theme which had underpinned most of the events this year.

Of course we all miss live music – but if we have to experience a festival on line I can think of no better way of doing so than this. Congratulations to all at BREMF for what they have achieved this year under such difficult circumstances.




Immortal by Jessia Duchen

When Beethoven died in 1827, unsent letters were found addressing his “Immortal Beloved”. Someone was evidently the love of his life but who was she? It’s a question which has intrigued Beethoven scholars for nearly 200 years.

Most people who’ve studied the trail now agree that the most likely candidate is  Josephine Brunsvik or Countess Jozefina Brunsvik de Korompa, later Countess Josephine Deym. This is the theory that music journalist, librettist and author, Jessica Duchen runs with in her entertaining, informative new novel.

Pepi, as she is called here within the family, is a troubled woman as we see through the eyes of her elder sister Therese (Tesi) who narrates the story. It is addressed to a beloved niece and – given that Pepi eventually bears seven children it’s a long time before we realise which one Tesi is addressing. And there’s something faintly operatic about the niece in question when we finally learn where she fits in. Remember that bit in The Marriage of Figaro when a whole number is based on paternity revelations? Well that – but no spoilers here.

There are several great strengths in this convincing story. Duchen gives us a very rounded, human, humane take on Beethoven: principled, difficult, disorganised, slovenly, kind, passionate, deaf and all the rest of it. And you can’t help being moved by Pepi’s predicament, unwise as she often is. I was also fascinated by the vividness of Duchen’s depiction of Vienna and emerged in horror at the realisation of just how dreadful life there would have been during that period of war and uncertainty. And as for all that appallingly uncomfortable travel around Austria and Hungary by coach: you ache in sympathy. Moreover I knew nothing of Tesi, who was a famed education pioneer, presented by Duchen in a neat twist as an unreliable narrator. I really enjoyed the moment at the opening of Fidelio when Tesi gives a spare ticket to a keen but very shy young man she happens on at the entrance. His name turns out to be Franz Schubert.

This speculative novel is a bit slow to get going but once Duchen gets into her stride it’s a real page turner although her music critic credentials sometimes shine too brightly through the narrative. We really don’t need an analytical run down of every piece Beethoven wrote although it does, I suppose, make a point about the taken-for-granted level of musical literacy in early 19th century Europe.

Susan Elkin

Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra: Helen May with the Ivanov & Chen Duo

Saturday 17th October, Christ Church, St Leonards-on-Sea

One of unexpected snags of the pandemic has been the closure of larger venues. St Mary in the Castle is now closed until April 2021 and the White Rock Theatre is similarly shut. Finding a venue for an orchestral concert, particularly one which has to be socially distanced, is therefore proving to be a problem. Thankfully the same is not true for chamber music, and Christ Church, St Leonards is proving to be a wonderful haven in the midst of cultural turbulence. With the chairs arranged in three wide semi-circles there is no sense of gaps, only of a relaxed space within which to perform.

Last Saturday brought soprano Helen May together with the Ivanov & Chen Duo for an evening of song and arrangements for clarinet and piano. They three musicians came together at the start for Schubert’s glorious setting of Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. This is a ‘scena’ rather than a song as the singer moves from the Shepherd’s delight in the hills and valleys, to the love-sick concern that his sweetheart is so far away before returning to delight in the fact that Spring is on its way. The accompaniment from both clarinet and piano was beautifully balanced to bring out the nuances in Schubert’s delicate scoring.

The Rigoletto Fantasia da Concerto which followed allowed Boyan Ivanov to demonstrate his dexterity on the clarinet with the florid decoration of the melody, before Helen May sang Caro nome from the same opera. The Meditation from Massenet’s Thais is familiar though not in a fine arrangement for clarinet and piano, which allowed Boyan Ivanov to show the gentler side of the instrument. Helen May returned to sing the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust. She seemed to be particularly at ease singing in French and this was a spirited way to bring to first half to a close.

After a brief interval – no refreshments and social distanced conversations behind masks – Boyan Ivanov and pianist Lysianne Chen returned to play the Carmen Fantaisie in an arrangement by Sarasate. We got the first half then there was a change to the programme. Marcio da Silva bounded on and sang one of the most engaging versions of the Toreador’s song I can remember. Just gently tongue in cheek, but every word crystal clear with a real sense of drama. Unexpected but very welcome. Helen May followed this with more reflective Song to the Moon from Dvorak’s Russalka, before Lysianne Chen gave us her only solo of the evening, Black Earth by Fazil Say. The opening and closing sections require the performer to recreate the sound of a Turkish baglama – a lute-like instrument – by physically dampening the strings by hand while hitting the keys. It was most effective and a pity the work itself was so short.

The evening concluded with an arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which allowed us to hear the wonderful jazz writing in all its glory. The next recital in the series brings the Dumky Trio to Christ Church on Saturday 21st November. Limited seating so book now.


Hastings Early Music Festival

Kino Teatr, St Leonards, Saturday 17 October

The festival may be reduced in size this year because of the ongoing problems with Covid19, but thankfully it has not affected either the quality of the performances Jane Gordon is able to bring to the town or the enthusiasm of the audiences. Where some venues look strained with social distancing, the Kino Teatr simply looked as though it was comfortably full for a matinee.

I was there to hear the Rautio Piano Trio playing Mozart and Faure. Mozart’s G major Trio K 564 is a late work, written at the same time as the three last symphonies, though they have little in common. There is a charm and naivety to the Trio which belies Mozart’s emotional state at the time it was written. The dominance of the piano, particularly in the opening movement, gives credence to the idea that the work was adapted from a piano sonata, but it’s none the worse for that. The opening Allegro is lively and, for one who was coming back to live music after seven months, sounded remarkably loud! The theme and variations of the second movement seems to die out suddenly, as if Mozart had had enough of it, before turning to the wonderfully child-like melody of the finale.

The second work was Faure’s D minor Trio Op120. Written when the composer was in his seventies, it is an indulgent work which asks us to trust and literally go with the flow. There is a sense of urgency in the opening movement but it is unclear where it is heading with its constant fluidity and changes of pulse. This restlessness continues in the slow movement which has occasional flowerings of melody, though they don’t last and the darker edges creep back in. The final Presto is skittish and often introspective with many dynamic changes throughout. This may have seemed an odd choice for an early music festival but the contrast with the Mozart was very telling.

The trio ended with a brief but highly evocative Tango to send us on our way. The Rautio Piano Trio – Jane Gordon, violin, Victoria Simonsen, cello and Jan Rautio, piano – record for Resonus Classics and the Mozart trio is currently available.

Oxford Lieder: From the Pens of Women

A whole evening of song settings of words by women is an interesting idea – and, as Kitty Whately, explained in the post-concert Q/A –  it evolved from her interest in certain writers and was first performed at Wigmore Hall last year.

Like all this year’s Oxford Lieder concerts, the evening began with a mini-recital by an emerging artist. This time it was bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton with four of Schubert’s 13 songs setting words by women. He found lots of warmth and spark in pieces which deserve to be better known than most of them are.

And so to the wistfulness of Ralph Vaughan-Williams in reflective, late-life mood, setting poems by his wife, Ursula, mostly in minor keys. Whately finds sad passion especially in Menelaus in which the titular king calls for his long lost wife, Helen, and it’s deeply poignant.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, much younger than her husband, was an accomplished poet. All the Future Days is a cycle of ten poems. Whately – who clearly has a very well established rapport with strikingly sensitive pianist, Simon Lepper – gave us Jonathan Dove’s settings of three of them. The emotional immersion in The Siren was particularly notetworthy. Whately is a singer of great versatility.

The second half of the concert used chattier texts – beginning with two poems by Margaret Attwood. Dominick Argento’s setting of Virginia Woolf’s Anxiety is an intense study of stress, based on an extract from her diary with lots of musical acrobatics, powerfully caught by both performers. It’s impossible to listen to without remembering, and reflecting on, Woolf’s eventual suicide. After that the light relief of Juliana Hall’s setting of extracts from Edna St Vincent Millay – especially the one asking for money, sang by Whatley with a big musical smile – was welcome.

The evening ended with Dove’s settings of three poems by Millay which was originally a BBC Radio 3 commission for Whately. She and Lepper took the concert to a real dramatic climax in I too Beneath Your Moon.

An enjoyable concert on the whole although, lovely as the Holywell Music Room is, it’s sad to see it empty of audience. It’s also awkwardly stilted  when at the end of each piece or set the performers simply have to stop. They don’t even smile at each other. There’s none of the sense of excitement and togetherness that an applauding audience brings. And as Hambleton told Petroc Trelawney in the interval talk it’s the audience which actually brings songs to life. Without it there’s s dimension missing.

Susan Elkin

Bach and Britten; Oxford Lieder Festival

This warm, pleasant concert opened with some external scene- setting camera work to allow us to feel that we were walking into the chapel of Merton College. Of course it would have been nicer to have been there in person but efforts had certainly been made to make us feel as though we really were for this live streamed event.

The programme was a Britten sandwich – Bach’s substantial Ich habe genug and his Der Ewogkeit saphrnes Haus framing six shorter Britten pieces all rooted in Bach.

Ian Bostridge’s mellifluous voice conveyed every ounce of drama and emotion – at times he was almost leaning over his music stand in controlled passion. Thomas Hammond-Davies conducted with his body too – almost a choreographed dance between the two men and definitely a performance which benefited from being seen as well as heard.

The accompaniment was provided – on original instruments – by a string quartet augmented by flute (fabulous playing) and organ, all standing distanced in a semi-circle behind Bostridge. When he sang the final Bach piece at the end of the concert the viola was gone but there was scoring for an oboe – a honey-coloured wooden instrument with a creamy tone. It was shot, with real musical insight too – the bow on the cello and the fingers on the flute at appropriate moments.

The Britten numbers were accompanied by Saskia Giorgini on piano. She had her music on an iPad or similar which she scrolled manually to “turn” her pages. I’ve only seen this once before in performance and then the player operated it with a Bluetooth pedal. Giorgini’s method seemed to work smoothly enough and she’s a sensitive player.

This concert certainly showed Bostridge’s stylistic range. The first Britten piece, My beloved is mine and I am his Op 40 is full of unpredictable intervals and unexpected tonality, but Bostridge, of course, sang it with passion and conviction. The Five Spiritual Songs – Giestliche Lieder – which followed, were fresh and attractive in this performance. Written for Peter Peers, accompanied by the composer in 1969, they are arrangements of Bach. Liebster Herr Jesu was especially lovely in Bostridge’s rendering.

And so to the closing number – funeral music for Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony and composed by Bach in the Italian style. Bostridge and Hammond-Davies made it into a momentous and moving end to this 50 minute lunch time concert.

Susan Elkin


Mendelssohn and the Jewish Enlightenment: Oxford lieder Festival 2020

All credit to Oxford Lieder Festival and its director, Sholto Kynoch. The Song Connections series is informative and intelligent without being heavy or dry.

Mendelssohn’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was an 18th century philosopher. Under the tolerant polices of Frederick the Great in Prussia he became a leading Enlightenment thinker who wanted Jewish people to be fully assimilated into the community, their talents recognised and valued. Soon there were schools for both boys and girls, mixed marriages and conversions. We learn all this from Philip Ross Bullock in Oxford, Avi Lifshitz at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and  Martin Holmes at the Bodleian Library.

Short talks are interspersed with some very fine renderings of Mendelssohn songs by Magnus Walker, tenor, and Gus Tredwell, piano. Working in a mahogany panelled room at the Bodleian and surrounded by portraits of academics, they work sensitively together. The high spot in their mini-recital is Glosse in which they find anger and despair along with delicate lyricism. Walker has an impressively rich tone and I really liked the musical rapport between the two of them.

Of Moses’s six children, only two remained in the Jewish faith. Two converted to Catholicism and two – one of who was Felix’s father, Abraham – became protestants. Felix and his siblings were all baptised and his wife Cecile Jeanrennud was the daughter of a protestant pastor. Thus the composer – who famously revived Bach’s strongly Lutheran St Matthew Passion (Berlin 1829) – looked both ways, culturally because he also had his grandfather’s writings translated.

Most of Mendelssohn’s musical manuscripts are in Berlin but much of his other writing and drawing is in the Bodleian thanks to Oxford resident Margaret Dineke who inherited the archive from a friend who’d known the composer. It was eventually bequeathed to the Bodleian by her sister in 1973. Loveliest of the collection is an album of music, painting and writing Mendelssohn assembled as a honeymoon gift for his wife. As one viewer dubbed it in the Q&A which followed the event: “the nineteenth century equivalent of a mix tape.”

Susan Elkin