Two Sisters Gypsy Music People’s String Foundation Hever Castle, 29 May 2021

Anyone who reads my music reviews regularly will spot that this concert is not the sort of thing I usually cover. Actually, it’s back to my roots: my father was a ceilidh band leader and from my early teens I often sat in on fiddle or guitar when they were short for a dance, festival or other event. I therefore feel pretty comfortable with anything folky and sometimes it even overlaps with the early, baroque, classical and Romantic music I usually favour.

And this concert – where we sat under an awning, and well wrapped up in Hever Castle’s idyllic grounds as part of its festival – did not disappoint. I was pleasantly surprised by the eclecticism and the creativity of a whole evening of original compositions.

Ben Sutcliffe (violin, vocals and keyboard) and Zaid Al Rikabi (guitar and vocals), who are based in Cornwall, have been composing songs together since 2008. Gradually they began to work with other players and from that has emerged the 32 piece orchestra which they call The People’s String Foundation – although some woodwind and brass players are included. As a group they have worked on various projects and collaborations and Sutcliffe and Al Rikabi are regular composers for the Minnack Theatre.

This concert – their first live gig for nearly a year, they told the audience – gave us Sutcliffe and Al Rikabi playing acoustically in the first half. Then, after the interval, we got an audio/video projection of the whole orchestra recorded in Truro last year with the two men silhouetted in front of it and playing as part of the ensemble.

The music is very repetitive but compelling and often beautiful. The opening number, for example, consists of a fairly simple 16 bar melody which repeats to become, effectively, a folk-style take on theme and variations with a pretty exciting foot-tapping accelerando and crescendo passage. The whole concert is characterised by minor keys, close harmony and syncopation. Romanian Gypsy and Klezmer influences are very clear. I especially liked the col legno effect with very percussive guitar in, for example a number called “Solidarity” Both men are virtuoso players and several times stunned me with their techniques – Sutcliffe’s upward glissandi are really something.

My problem with the first half was the lighting. There wasn’t any. The temporary theatre in the Hever Castle grounds is effectively an awning for the audience and a forward-pointing canopy over the stage so it’s in shadow. It is equipped with stage lights and there’s a lighting box at the back of the auditorium but none of it was in use for this show. Whether that was for artistic or budgetary reasons it was a mistake because I could hardly see the two men on stage.

The second half was visually better because dusk had arrived and the main focus was the lit screen behind the two men. The production, called Res Publica, was a collaboration with Kneehigh, a Cornish theatre company and we saw a wooden marionette climb out of an old wooden violin case in a wood and then explore – as we listened to and watched the orchestra which makes rather a good sound. I was interested to see that, although Sutcliffe and Al Rikabi play entirely from memory with a great deal of visual signalling, orchestra members use conventional sheet music.

It was certainly a concert with a difference and an enjoyable two hours in a very pleasant venue.

Susan Elkin

HASTINGS INTERNATIONAL PIANO – Claire Martin OBE and Nikki Iles – 28th May – Rye Creative Centre

Alongside the well established Concerto Competition Hastings International Piano organises a variety of events throughout the year to promote the piano in different settings with a number of prestigious performers. In this concert of songs in jazz arrangements the pianist had an equal billing with the singer. She had two roles – providing accompaniment and, as with much jazz, sometimes taking the lead and becoming the soloist for a while.

Both performers are acclaimed musicians in their own right. Claire Martin led us through a well constructed tribute of songs mostly associated with Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. Brilliantly accompanied at the piano throughout by Nikki Iles the programme included songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bernstein & Gershwin.

Claire Martin’s voice sometimes declaimed with great force and at other times teased and whispered. At times there was humour and playfulness and at other times a broader straighter sound. In a similar way Nikki Isles sometimes gently supported and at other times extended and highlighted melodies, with adventurous harmony and rhythmic dexterity.

The venue for this concert was new. The recently renovated old gym now forms a versatile auditorium for performance at the heart of Rye Creative Centre. Much thought had gone into making the audience welcome and comfortable as well as necessarily socially distanced. It is encouraging that at a time when performers and audiences have been severely restricted this new venue has been developed so successfully.

A very enjoyable evening.

Further events will take place here as well as at Fairlight Hall and White Rock Theatre.

hastingsinternationalpiano.org

Stephen Page

Isata Kanneh-Mason Brighton Dome, 25 May 2021

Isata Kanneh-Mason plays with poise, panache and maturity. She begins each piece with a moment’s silence and stillness – and then does the same between movements – which presumably allows her to focus and reset. It also has the effect of making the audience, as one, hold its breath and concentrate. What then follows are performances of technical excellence and intelligence. Hand movements are fluidly eloquent but she’s a visually unshowy (glitzy silver dress notwithstanding) performer. The magic is all in the sound.

Her sixty minute recital for the Brighton Festival was bookended by two very different, substantial sonatas with shorter pieces between. And in the course of that she managed to traverse three centuries and two continents.

Isata Kanneh-Mason’s account of Mozart K457, with its three contrasting movements was warmly compelling, especially in the Allegro assai in which she really made the most of the evocative pauses.

Then came Chopin (Ballade No 2 in F Major Op 38) whose impassioned A minor central section may, just possibly, be inspired by Polish national suffering in the late 1830s when it was written. Well, programmatic or not, it revealed plenty of drama in Kanneh-Mason’s hands.

Next she hopped across the Atlantic and moved on to three Gershwin preludes, all connotative of Rhapsody in Blue by which time I found myself wondering if there’s anything this talented young woman can’t do. She strode, tiptoed and danced through the jazzy syncopation with such sensitivity that, for a few moments we were effortlessly spirited off to a completely different world.

Still in the US, the concert ended with Samuel Barber’s 1950 piano sonata Op 36 which was new to me. I liked the way Kanneh-Mason played the charming second movement – allegro vivace e leggiero – which has the feel of Saint-Saens’s Aquarium about it and was delivered here with ethereal lightness of touch. She played the adagio with lots of weight on the grandiloquent left hand chords and then, with a well managed diminuendo, let it die away echoing like Holst’s Neptune.

The challenging fugue which completes the Barber sonata was played at terrifying speed which turned it into a real show piece – a resounding finale to a splendid recital.

Susan Elkin

La Nuova Musica Monteverdi Vespers Brighton Dome -Brighton Festival 23 May

It was a real joy to be back in an indoor space listening to live music again for the first time since before Christmas. And I have to say that distanced seating in Brighton Dome had an interesting effect on the acoustic which suited the ethereal Monteverdi sound very well as conductor David Bates carefully allowed every echo and harmonic to die away in the lofty cathedral-like space.

This, however, was not quite the Vespro della Beata Vergine as we know them. Rather it was a concert based around most of the Vespers – no plain chant between movements – with other contemporary pieces which deliberately blurred the sacred/secular divide and gave us a mix of Latin and Italian. Thus we got Pur ti miro from L’incoronazione di Poppea tucked in after Laetutus Sum and, sung with warm passion by Julia Doyle and Joanne Lunn, it was an electrifying, show stopping moment.

One of the strengths of this performance is the authencity of its small size. Ten singers stood, distanced at music stands around the back of the stage behind the eight piece band. They reconfigured their postions for each number so that the sound varied rather effectively. Sololists sang with the ensemble. High spots included the precision and colour of Dixit Dominus with an immaculately controlled amen, the jolly folksy theatricality of the madrigal Vogilo di vita uscir and the otherworldly echoes in Audi coelum.

Ot course all this was accompanied on original instruments with all the drama of two fetching theorbos and organ as well as David Bates conducting from the harpsichord. It’s quite an education too to see a period harp played standing up (Joy Smith – her opening Toccata seconda was arresting) and double bass (Judith Evans) played seated.

Perhaps this wasn’t the Vespers for the purists as you might hear it in, say, an Italian cathedral but full marks for highlighting the eroticism of this music and for drawing attention to the way in which musical boundaries were rather less absolute in the seventeenth century. And the sound was terrific.

Susan Elkin

HASTINGS PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, CHRISTCHURCH, ST LEONARDS-ON-SEA. 22nd May 2021 MARCIO DA SILVA, conductor, YUANFAN YANG, piano

A playful elbow bump between conductor and orchestra leader started the proceedings in what was an evening of many firsts associated with live performances, in-person audiences and emerging out of lockdown. There was certainly a buzz from the capacity (distanced and masked) audience, able to enjoy live music once more and the performers rose admirably to the occasion.

The programme began with Grieg’s very familiar Peer Gynt Suite No 1. Lyrical moments contrasted with rhythm and excitement. This was followed by Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 with Scottish soloist, Yuanfan Yang. Orchestra and pianist gave a wonderfully committed performance of this exciting music. The piano part demands some very forceful repetitive chordal playing alongside virtuoso scales and glissandi. There are also more expansive tender moments. Yuanfan Yang certainly did not disappoint. As an encore he gave a lovely and surprising improvisation on ‘random notes’ supplied by a member of the audience together with a suggested style. This was a really nice touch.

Symphony No 4 in F minor by Tchaikovsky was a substantial final work for the evening. The whole work gave opportunities for hearing the orchestra in full force as well as times when the various sections could be heard in dialogue with each other. A delightful pizzicato string section came in the third movement. Further thrilling sounds at the culmination of the final movement brought the evening to a very satisfying conclusion.

It is often difficult to achieve a perfect balance in an acoustic not primarily designed as a concert hall and there were a few times when certain instruments were overpowered by others. However, this is a small criticism in the context of a very enjoyable evening of music.

In normal circumstances this would have been a wonderful concert. It was even more remarkable and a testament to so many who are determined to bring back live music at a time when we are still living with the effects of the pandemic – organisers, technicians, musicians and audience.

For details of forthcoming concerts www.hastingsphilorchestra.co.uk

Stephen Page

HPO PASTORAL -HASTINGS PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

Premiered online on 24th April this concert was recorded the previous weekend in the beautiful setting of Christ Church, St Leonards-on-Sea. Throughout the performance the orchestra and soloist were in fine form under the enthusiastic baton of Marcio da Silva.

Setting the scene for the programme was Beethoven’s Overture:Leonore. This gave an opportunity for the orchestra to be heard together before being joined by the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s well loved Piano Concerto No 1. Maxim Kinasov gave a very committed performance alongside the orchestra. Since winning prizes at the 2019 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition he has given a number of performances around the area as well as establishing himself further afield including concerts in Europe and the United States.

The final music gave the title to this concert. Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 “Pastoral” is another popular work and it was good to see and hear it here in St Leonards being played with appropriate energy or lyricism as the piece demands.

A thoroughly polished performance and presentation giving a taste of what is hopefully to come when Covid restrictions are lifted to allow for more “normal” conditions will allow audiences to return in person. For now, though, these online presentations are to be commended and enjoyed.

A socially distanced concert is planned at Christ Church on 22nd May 7.30pm.

Details at www.hastingsphilorchestra.co.uk

Stephen Page

 

Hastings International Piano Concerts – Celebration Series – Tzu-Ying Huang

Part of an online series of performances this concert featured the 2016 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition winner. Tzu-Ying Huang played two substantial and lesser known works linked by their both being inspired by literature.

Lizst’s Vallee d’Obermann and Schumann’s Kreisleriana both contain passages of intensity and force alongside more lyrical movements. Naturally there was more opportunity for contrast in the second, the longer of the two works. Throughout the programme Tzu-Ying Huang gave fully of herself as she played this music with conviction and panache. A benefit of the online experience is the ability to see her dexterity and control up close on the keyboard. Opinions divide over the issue but, as a general rule, I like to experience an introduction to the music from the performer at the start of a concert and it was good to get that on this occasion.

Previous concerts from other performers are available on line. The next concert in the series premieres on 11th May. A newly recorded concert with Maxim Kinasov and the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra will be available from 24th April.

Full details are available from hastingsphilorchestra.co.uk

Stephen Page

Opera North Ring Cycle – on YouTube

Peter Mumford built up Opera North’s Ring Cycle over four years – one opera a year – and I was fortunate enough to review the live performances at the Birmingham Symphony Hall for Musical Opinion. However I never encountered the cycle complete in one week – until now.

Over the Easter holiday we watched the cycle on YouTube and in many ways it is even more impressive than hearing it live.

This is far more than just a semi-staging. The cast are dressed appropriately for their characters and are at the very front of the stage. The full orchestra under Richard Farnes is banked up behind them, and above them are three large screens onto which are projected ambient vistas to reflect the action – fire, water, storm clouds etc – and a running story line, rather than a set of surtitles, which encourage the audience to listen rather than try to follow word for word.

This was the experience in the concert hall. For me, the TV/film experience was even better. The screen was frequently split into six sections. The top, smaller, three covered the conductor in the centre and the orchestra either side. The lower three were for the singers of whom there are rarely more than three protagonists at a time. Where necessary the screen images were bled behind the singers to create added atmosphere, frequently extremely effective – the fire in the immolation scene gradually engulfs Brunnhilde before the Rhine washes over her and Valhalla burns. It is rarely as effective in the theatre.

Then we come to the singers. Wagner took most of his life completing the cycle and managed to write Tristan and Meistersinger between the second and third acts of Siegfried. As a consequence characters develop and where an opera house mounting the cycle will understandably prefer to keep one singer one part, the slow build-up over four years enabled ON to match voices to parts with much more subtlety. One simple example; Wotan changes considerably across the first three operas. Michael Druiett’s young, pushy Rheingold god is clearly headstrong and careless of longer term outcomes, whereas Robert Hayward’s Walkure god is far more troubled and introspective, making his act two scenes with Brunnhilde very moving. Béla Perencz is a gnarled, worldly-wise Wanderer in Siegfried and one who is all too ready to see the end as inevitable and actually welcome.

Of the smaller parts Jeni Bern is a charmingly agile Woodbird, Claudia Huckle a very youthful Erda and Mats Almgren as black a Hagen as one could ask for.

Yet it is the Siegfried and Brunnhilde that were really outstanding. We had met Kelly Cae Hogan as the Walkure Brunnhilde where she certainly made her mark but she really came into her own in Gotterdammerung, radiant in act one, fierce as hell in act two and simply overwhelming in the immolation scene. Alongside her Mati Turi is as totally convincing a Siegfried as one could wish for, with his changes in emotion keenly felt at all times and the voice as heroic as one might wish for. This is a Ring to be proud of – any chance of a DVD!

 

 

Oxford Lieder Winterreise

All the way from the resonant arpeggios of Gute Nacht to the haunting, wistful A minor pianissimo of Der Leiermann, this is an elegant, thoughtfully judged Winterreise. We are taken, very effectively, on the final journey.

Dietrich Henshel is an admirably unshowy performer. He stands simply beside the piano without swaying or arm waving. The drama is entirely in his voice and face but there’s plenty of it. His Der Lindenbaum is warmly impassioned, his Fruhlingstraum finds a lovely lilt in the opening bars and his high notes and big intervals  are nicely controlled in Letzte Hoffnung. I found his Die Wetterfahne a bit breathy but it’s a fairly minor quibble.

Warmest praise too for Sholto Kynoch’s work on piano. These pieces are – when performed as sensitively as this –  definitely duets rather than songs “accompanied” by piano. In Der Wegweiser, for example, Kynoch’s exquisite playing really highlights the breathless effect.  Interestingly Kynoch manages his music by technological alchemy – a tablet on the music stand, presumably controlled by a left foot blue tooth pedal. It’s a neat way of precluding the need for a human page turner in close proximity in these Covid-compliant times – if you’re brave enough.

The concert began with emerging artist Anna Cavaliero singing two Schubert songs. Her singing is crisp and warm and she, too, has a tightly integrated rapport with Kynoch on piano.

It’s good to be back in the Holywell Room, with Petroch Trelawny as the ever urbane, competent, knowledgeable link man. I wish, however, we didn’t have to have those lights decorating the balusters behind the piano which, when you watch digitally, connote all the gaudiness of cheap Christmas decorations.

An advantage of watching digitally, though, is the way the subtitles are now managed. You are given the whole poem at the side of the screen with a moving highlight so that you know exactly where you are and a line by line translation at the bottom of the screen. As a non-Germanist I like this although I suspect purists might find it irritating. It’s new technology for Oxford Lieder so I’ll make allowances for the couple of times when the performance moved to the next number but the printed text didn’t.

Susan Elkin

HPO – Piano Trios

Christ Church, St Leonards, 13 December 2020

There seemed to be a strange coming together on Sunday evening. As we waited for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and their constant oscillation between hope and despair, we heard three Piano Trios, each of which have darker undercurrents running through them even if the final bars allow for some hope.

Aysen Ulucan, violin, Oliver Mansfield, cello and Francis Rayner, piano, opened with Beethoven’s early Op1 No1. This was not, of course, Beethoven’s first composition but the one he wished the world to take note of. It opens with a lyrical fleetness, led strongly from the piano, and is highly technically challenging. The second movement flows on easily from this and brings a gentle cantabile, before the greater intensity of the third. Here, the trio drew strongly on the dark under-currents even as the lighter moments occasionally flowered. The final movement picks up on the ferocity and pace of the opening with even more demands on the pianist – a part which the composer had of course written for himself.

Brahms C minor Trio Op101 was written almost a century later and is intensely dramatic, even when it allows for sudden romantic outbursts of captivating melody. The short second movement is even more disturbing in its constant sense of unease, though the answer and response sections of the third movement bring a sense of relief and calm. The final movement returns to the dramatic impact of the opening and is wedded to the minor keys right up to the end when the sudden burst of concord hardly brings any lasting encouragement.

After a brief interval, we heard Dvorak’s Dumky Trio. Written only four years after Brahms’ trio it is a world away with its rapid changes of mood and texture. There are frequent moments of exhilaration which become almost hedonistic, contrasted without any linking material with passages of deep reflection – often with fine solo writing for the cello. The third movement brings an unexpected polka at its heart but it has a dark edge which is never quite thrown off. A jolly March with rapid changes of tempi leads to a more extrovert, if not quite bracing, Allegro before the final Lento maestoso with its supressed tension and often frenetic outbursts. Here the violin solo comes into its own as Dvorak allows each instrument to find its own voice.

An engaging, if often troubling, performance, but maybe exactly what we needed on the night.  The real joy was the way the three soloists encouraged us to engage fully with the music, even at its most disturbing.