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.

CBSO in lockdown

Birmingham Symphony Hall, Thursday 10 December 2020

Birmingham Symphony Hall has been my favourite concert venue since it first opened and it was a pleasure to sit in on a digital concert with the CBSO, and some of my favourite composers. This was the third digital concert, given over this time to Brahms and Mendelssohn, with the works becoming increasingly unfamiliar as the evening progressed.

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture has been a favourite since I studied it for O level. One of the unexpected benefits of lockdown is that I was able to sit with my laptop, head phones on, and sing Gaudeamus igitur at the top of my voice at the end – with nobody to complain and Sally not digging me in the ribs to keep quiet!

Conductor Alpesh Chauhan brought a freshness and vitality to his conducting which continued into Mendelssohn’s first piano concert with Stephen Hough the engaging soloist. He knows the work well and his technical finesse and sparkling articulation brought the work to scintillating life, with fine fluidity in the final movement. There was also some beautiful solo cello work in the second movement.

The final work was Mendelssohn’s First Symphony. Overshadowed by the more familiar later symphonies this one bubbles with life and energy, even the more romantic slow movement and the trio second of the third. The final Allegro con fuoco seemed to sum up the whole performance bringing the attack and angst of sturm und drang together with the romanticism that early Mendelssohn creates.

The symphony hall was entirely empty and the extended platform allowed for comfortable social distancing without any loss of impact or sense of ensemble. As we noted earlier in the year with the BBC in an empty RAH, there are actually some benefits in not having an audience!

More details of ongoing, online events on the CBSO website.


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.