ENO: Porgy & Bess

London Coliseum, Thursday 11 October 2018

You need to be at least middle-aged to recall the last production of Porgy & Bess staged in this country – Glyndebourne’s production under Simon Rattle, remounted later at the ROH – so it is all the more welcome now. That director James Robinson’s approach often raises as many questions as it solves is not to underestimate the achievement here, if nothing else the overwhelming impact of the score and the quality of singing.

It is easy to overlook the fact that this is essentially a choral work and the chorus which ENO has assembled are superb. The funeral scene, the great storm, the final chorus are stunningly effective and powerful while maintaining a sense of a genuine community coming together. The large number of solo parts are also pleasingly apt without any obvious caricaturing or stereotypes.

John Wilson whips his orchestra into a heady jazz idiom while maintaining the genuine operatic basis of Gershwin’s score, and it is this cross-over which is so well handled. All the soloists have operatic voices which are more than capable of filling the large spaces of the Coliseum. Nmon Ford’s Crown impresses from the start and is dangerously powerful throughout. If Eric Greene’s Porgy is more than a match for him it is partly because he is unusually athletic. While his left leg is badly deformed and he needs a crutch to move about, he does so swiftly and with apparent ease. This is one of a number of choices which sit uncomfortably with the text. Why is he a beggar when he appears to be as active as many of the other men and could surely hold down some sort of job? Or am I simply seeing it in terms of our current approach to those on benefits?!

Nicole Cabell’s Bess is a far more complex character – an obvious addict and, possibly because of this, showing very little personal strength. She is an outsider while Crown’s mistress, but is accepted into Catfish Row when she takes over Clara’s baby. Yet she returns to Crown all too easily and slopes off with Sporting Life at the end.

At the heart of the work her duet with Porgy, Bess you is my woman now is the key to the evening, and John Wilson slows the tempo to allow us to indulge in their one really happy moment.

Frederick Ballentine is a disturbing Sporting Life, seemingly allowed to lurk on the fringes of society, occasionally berated by the women but tolerated even though he is a real danger. That the chorus all seemed so happy to join in with It ain’t necessarily so was another moment of tension given the strong faith they all seem to have across the rest of the work.

Nadine Benjamin’s Clara and Latonia Moore’s Serena were warmly and glowingly sung, their presence underpinning the ongoing life of the community.

The design work by Michael Yeargan was something of a double-edged sword. The vast skeletal building, on its even larger revolve, provided a sense of community and of life taking place all the time in the individual rooms, but the lack of walls made it difficult to understand the ghetto-like sense of claustrophobia the community endures or a real sense of poverty. The upper floors had large fans in the ceilings – could they really afford this?

But these are minor quibbles for a production which brings ENO back into focus for quality production values as well as outstanding music.

CDs/DVDs October 2018

Handel: Xerxes
Frankfurter Opern, Constantinos Carydis
UNITEL 747908
Vivaldi: Orlando Furioso
I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis

Linking these two recordings is not as strange as it may at first appear. The two operas, by two of the finest operatic composers of the early eighteenth century could hardly be more contrasted in their presentation, even if their musical qualities are equally satisfying. Tilmann Kohler stages his Xerxes in modern dress with a continuous use of whole stage projections to highlight details of the action. There are immediate parallels to modern dictatorships and oppressive regimes which are clearly intended and the audience is invited to consider and respond to them. By total contrast, Fabio Ceresa’s presentation of OrlandoFurioso for the 43rd Festival della Valle d’Itria is wildly over the top with its Baroque bling and large numbers of extras to pad out the on stage image. While the music is never up-staged there is always something to look at for the potentially bored festival goer. Much of the time this works well but there are moments when one wishes the work had, for all the excitement of the score, been taken rather more seriously to allow emotions to breath and develop. Vivaldi is as fine a dramatist as Handel in creating his characters through the straight-jacket of opera seria and – as Garsington Opera has shown us – has a great deal to offer.

Finzi: Cello Concerto etc
Paul Watkins cello; Louis Lortie piano; BBCSO, Sir Andrew Davis

Gerald Finzi constantly revised his works and it is therefore no surprise to find that all four works here were significantly revised over time, but are all here recorded in their final form. The works as presented all date from the early 1950s and it is no doubt that, had Finzi lived, he would have continued to work on them. I particularly enjoyed the Nocturne Op7 which has what I can only call an English introspection, drawing on Elgar but always its own voice.

Music for Brass Septet: 6
NAXOS 8.573825

An all English programme with works by Finzi, Elgar, Parry and Walton, all given in exuberant and challenging style by the brass septet. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings might not seem an obvious choice but works well alongside Parry’s Songs of Farewell and the second of Finzi’s Three Anthems.

Berlioz: Grande Messe des Morts
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Edward Gardner

Recorded live in the Grieghallen, Bergen, in May this year, this is a tremendous recording with all the extrovert panache and at times near-vulgarity of Berlioz epic score. Edward Gardner creates very tight rhythms and strong dynamic changes to highlight the intensity of the writing throughout. Tenor soloist Bror Magnus Todenes is equally strongly focussed in the only solo vocal part. Of course the great Tuba Mirum does not have quite the impact on cd as in the concert hall, but reminds us of the thrill the work actually creates live. Though there are many versions available this new one has to come very close to the top, and is enthusiastically recommended if you do not already have a copy in your library.

Parry: Symphony No4
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rumon Gamba

The centenary of Parry’s death has been marked in a number of ways across the country and this cd includes works not previously recorded or in new editions by Jeremy Dibble. We have the original version of the Fourth Symphony. The work was so substantially revised by the composer that it is effectively a different work from the one with which we are more familiar. Its dark, brooding passages come as something of a shock to those who expect a more lyrical feel from Parry. Proserpine certainly brings this – a ballet score from 1912 with all the lightness the title implies. The listener could be forgiven for thinking they were hearing Elgar in Parry’s Suite Moderne so gently lyrical and melancholic is the unfolding line. Let us hope some of these works are taken up in live performance.

Chopin Cello Sonata; Schubert Arpeggione Sonata
Steven Isserlis cello; Denes Varjon piano

A fine recording which surrounds some very familiar works with some brief but none the less exhilarating extras. Steven Isserlis includes his own arrangement of Schubert’s Nacht und Traume and Chopin’s Nie ma czego trzeba. Possibly more interesting is the lengthy note on the problems of the editions available and the approach taken here. For many listeners this will make little difference to their appreciation but when one is aware of what is being crafted, the impact is all the more telling.

Music for Windy Instruments
The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble

Sounds from the Court of James I is the subtitle to this recording and it is exactly that – a collection of 25 pieces of cheerfully entertaining music from the early seventeenth century. The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year and they continue to delight with their bright, virile playing the sense that this music is anything but historic recreation. Long may it continue!

Vaughan Williams; A Sea Symphony
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Martyn Brabbins

For a work on such a scale it is surprising that this new release gives no indication of where or when it was recorded. Often these are taken from live performances, given the large number of musicians involved and the time and effort needed to prepare the event. Notwithstanding, this is a fine reading from Martyn Brabbins, ably supported by the BBC forces and soloists Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth. The cd also includes the brief Darest thounow, O soul – an unexpected addition but worth hearing.

Winter Fragments: Chamber Music by Michael Berkeley
Berkeley Ensemble

There are five works recorded here of which the Clarinet Quintet is the most substantial. However, for listeners who are not over-familiar with Berkeley’s work the Sonnet for Orpheus perhaps gives the best insight into his individuality. The intense emotional impact is coupled with an astringency of line which denies any hint of indulgence or sentimentality. It is both moving and disturbing. From this point, the other works seem easier to approach and to explore.

Mendelssohn; String Quartets
Doric String Quartet

This is the first of what will presumably be a complete recording of Mendelssohn’s string quartets and hopefully include the other pieces for quartet which surround the six completed works. This cd covers the full range of the works, opening with Op12 in E flat major, moving through Op44No3 in the same key, written nine years later, to the final Op80 in F minor which explodes with the tensions arising in the composer’s final year. The playing is dynamically impressive throughout, very much in keeping with earlier recordings for Hyperion. We can look forward to the rest of the series.

Ruth Gipps: Symphonies 2 & 4
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rumon Gamba

Ruth Gipps has been all but forgotten and her work both as a composer and conductor overlooked. This new cd goes some way to restoring her reputation with the inclusion not only of two symphonies but also the early Knight in Armour which first brought her to prominence when it was played at the Last Night of the Proms in 1940. While he style reflects that of her tutors – in particular Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob, there is a distinct sense of individuality which is very appealing.

As she was born in Bexhill, perhaps we could do something locally to highlight her creative career?



The Nutcracker and I

Alexandra Dariescu & Desiree Ballantyne, King’s Place

Presented here as part of London Piano Festival at King’s Place, The Nutcracker and I is effectively a piano recital with attached ballet, both actual and projected. It’s an enticingly imaginative concept and a real joy to see/hear some of the most sublimely colourful music ever written uncompromisingly introduced to a new generation of (very) tiny future ballet lovers.

The music, played with passion and drama by Alexandra Dariescu  on a concert grand, consists of fifteen piano transcriptions by composers as varied as Mikhail Pletnev, Stepan Esipoff, Percy Grainger and Gavin Sutherland. All manage to connote the original orchestration pretty fully and pack in a lot of notes, the challenge of which Dariescu rises to with warmth and aplomb.

The action is projected onto a downstage gauze screen with delightfully sympathetic animation by Yeast Culture. Their blue Trepak dancers are really fluid, their nutcracker prince lithe and their mice witty without becoming Disney-like. The only live dancer, Desiree Ballantyne, communicates and dances with them all, just as Dariescu, who plays from memory in half light, makes smiling eye contact and keeps pretty well in time with the dancers. It requires quite special skill to relate and react convincingly to something the audience can see but you can’t  (think Dick Van Dyke and the penguins in Mary Poppins) and both performers bring it off effectively.

What I liked most about this 50 minute show was the lack of dumbing down. It’s simply music and movement with several quite long passages of piano only. There are no words or explanations but it works. Most of the children in the audience were engaged throughout.

Dariescu over-lards the Waltz of the Flowers for my taste and, for narrative cohesion, I’d prefer to return to Clara’s house as she wakes from her dream at the end in the usual way, instead of the rather untidy, unclear ending we get here but these are only quibbles. Generally I loved it and hope Dariescu might be planning similar versions of other ballets.

This show is touring worldwide this autumn and early in 2019. There are some further UK dates in December.

Susan Elkin

Bexhill Choral Society

St Augustine’s Church, Bexhill, 6th October 2018

At first glance Bexhill Choral Society’s concert last Saturday looked like a fairly conventional set of religious settings. In the event it was anything but, and all the more interesting for being so.

Cesar Franck’s surprisingly mystical opening for his setting of Psalm 150 flowered into a broad and flowing melody which set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Caccini’s Ave Maria was the first of the challenges for it is not by Caccini and its repetition of the two words hardly make it a setting of the prayer. Thankfully Kristy Swift and Judith Buckle brought sensitivity and great beauty of line to the piece.

Puccini’s Requiem – this time only the opening verse rather than a complete mass – brought some pleasantly reflective singing from the choir while Albinoni’s Adagio – another familiar piece that has nothing to do with the named composer! – allowed the orchestra to shine by themselves.

Schubert’s 1828 setting of Tantum Ergo is indulgently romantic, allowing the soloists to enjoy the voluptuous writing for them as well as demonstrating their coloratura.

After the interval we heard just one work – Rossini’s Stabat Mater. It is doubtful if anybody would guess the text if all they had was the score. Rossini regularly, almost deliberately, seems to set against the emotional reality of the text, yet when he gets to the final sections, which speak of Paradise and salvation, the score becomes darker and more tense, as if in direct conflict with the theology being expressed.

None of this seemed to worry the singers who clearly enjoyed the setting, with tenor Ian Parrett making much of his march solo and Peter Grevatt finding depth in Pro peccatis suae gentis before giving way to its overtly lyrical conclusion.

For most of the evening the choir were on good form, though the opening of the unaccompanied Eia, mater, fons amoris was poorly focussed. Happily Quando corpus morietur brought them comfortably together before the conclusion.

The Sussex Concert Orchestra gave sound support under Kenneth Roberts, with noteworthy contributions from horn Trevor Denyer and Nigel Howard at the organ.

The next concert is the annual Carols and Christmas Music on Saturday 8th December.

Naxos completes Wagner Ring Cycle with Götterdämmerung release

On 9th November 2018, Naxos releases Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera of Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle, on CD, audio Blu-ray and digital formats. The release of this album concludes a three-year journey started in January 2015 which has seen the Hong Kong Philharmonic, under their dynamic Music Director Jaap van Zweden, record Der Ring des Nibelungen over four successive seasons.

The highly acclaimed project features an all-star international Wagner cast, led by soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin in her debut as Brünnhilde, tenor Daniel Brenna as Siegfried, bass-baritone Shenyang as Gunther, bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, soprano Amanda Majeski as Gutrune and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Waltraute, with the Bamberg Symphony ChorusLatvian State Choir and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus.

Simultaneously, Naxos releases the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, as a special boxed set. Containing 14 CDs, the box also features a USB card loaded with extra content, including the libretti to all four operas, concert photos and behind-the-scenes video.

“I’m especially proud of the [Hong Kong Philharmonic] Orchestra after these last four years.
It was a long road, but a wonderful road. And I think the orchestra got better and better, playing this music, especially by
not only learning their own parts, but learning the parts around them – what’s going on in the orchestra.”

Jaap van Zweden

Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Worthing Assembly Hall, Sunday, September 30, 2018

A WSO concert rarity. Music all by composers who wore wigs. An occasion which surely demanded the musicians dress likewise! But rather than the theatre, sobriety called. It was to be a day of WSO history in the making. In sound. Tireless Turkish doyen of the piano Idil Biret, at 76, chose WSO, John Gibbons and their home stadium for the recording of the next pair of her career journey into the Piano Concertos of Mozart for the Naxos CD label.

In making their commercial recording debut on Sunday, WSO partnered Biret – hugely decorated internationally and the globe’s most-recorded pianist – into extending her gigantic recording legacy to 63 concertos. After her distinguished account of so many post-1800 piano compositional greats, several in live concert recordings, she has now gone back, in period, to Mozart.

Including Sunday, she has now recorded eight of his 27. Last year she added Nos 15 and 24 with John Gibbons joining the project and conducting the London Mozart Players at St John’s Smith Square in London. Her Nos 9 and 20 were also live, in Sydney, Australia, and Wurttemburg, Germany.

Biret is such a regular at Worthing that the Assembly Hall soloist’s dressing room on her visits sprouts Turkish drapes and lamps from the ceiling, rugs from the floor, and the purest authentic Turkish Delight from the refreshments fridge. Next time, before she plays whatever concerto, bookmakers’ odds are shortening that the parts for Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction from the Harem, with their Turkish percussion, will magically appear on the orchestra’s desks from a large puff of smoke generated by the raising of Gibbons’ baton.

Biret knows the orchestra, the acoustic, the audience, and she admires Gibbons’ flexible qualities. All involved on Sunday faced a marathon of preliminary rehearsing, recorded rehearsal takes, the live concert itself recorded, and, after the listening crowd had gone home, the plastic surgery re-takes to cover over any unacceptable flaws from the live performance. All except the concert itself was done behind closed Assembly Hall doors on the one day only.

To record an hour’s music with no previous orchestra rehearsal is the white-knuckle way the WSO and Gibbons execute their normal concerts, which results in quality one would deem miraculous were it not for the WSO’s comprising world-cream London and South East musicians with a readiness and willingness to tackle anything under a conductor they, too, have much time for – and travel mileage.

Principal violin Julian Leaper told me before the live concert that although the WSO is a contracted orchestra and not an employed one, 80% of the band are effectively ‘permanent’ and together felt a real pride in being about to make it onto disc as WSO. Of course, as recording orchestral musicians, WSO members, if anonymously (a disadvantage of their trade), have been on many famed recordings of concert hall repertoire and film soundtracks, including the Spielberg/Williams blockbusters.

Such will have increased Biret’s confidence and conviction in her decision to take WSO into their recording debut. Furthermore, leader Leaper informed me that he and fellow first-fiddles man Julian Trafford played in the English Chamber Orchestra in their lauded Mozart Concerto recordings with Murray Perahia and Mitsuko Uchida.

Worthing’s resident Steinway piano was unsuitable for the job in hand, however. My received information is that its quite recent upper re-stringing requires many more manual tunings before attaining optimal tuning stability. To require several such tunings during the day would waste time and disrupt.

Japanese makers Kawai therefore jumped at the chance to provide a substitute with the only available British example of their newly-developed Shigeru series Concert Grand – which emerges worldwide at a rate of only 20 a year, and which at £125,000 is intended to rival world-elite pianos Steinway, Bosendorfer, Fazioli and Yamaha’s CFX.

The Shigeru’s evenness of presence and tone across its keyboard length, and thus its expressive potential, was evident in the performance. Kawai delivered the instrument to Worthing and thus virtually sponsored the live recorded concert.

The day had begun early for the orchestra and recording crew, but maybe not as stressfully as for Maxwell Spiers. He was called up at 7am to be told that WSO principal oboist Chris O’Neil’s replacement Louise Hayter had fallen ill. Would he get dressed and get down here? He would? Right, so all was now ready.

Well might have Spiers been mopping his brow after his rush but then he discovered the altered playing order of music meant his big moment came right at the start. The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba features the two oboes in busy duetting fanfares. Its ending brought real mopping of the Spiers brow and he admitted: “Yes, that piece is a real blow [challenge]! We are playing in nearly every bar because Handel has us playing the first violins part in the bits between our solos.”

Biret may be from Ankara, but if her first concerto of the day as the celebrated soloist was announced by The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, what’s a few hundred miles across mountains and semi-desert?

William Boyce made probably his WSO debut when British music nut John Gibbons unfailingly seized the rare chance to crack open one of his short but distinctive eight baroque symphonies as a limbering-up for making a recording of other late 18th Century music. And a splendid choice it was, too, when it opened the second half of the concert. Boyce being the Master Of The King’s Music, it’s actual composition was to mark the birthday of George II.

Boyce bridges an historical musical gap between Purcell and Elgar, and is buried beneath the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Ahead of this intended CD of Mozart’s 25th and 27th Piano Concertos seeing the light of day, I ought properly to say nothing of the performance. But with the occasion’s music choices – all but the sublime Bb Concerto creating a real sense of celebration – I’ll say one thing. Having listened to WSO since a boy it was a thrill to hear the magnificent orchestra-only introduction to the C Major Concerto build and build, knowing what we heard now might be heard far and wide in years to come. Mozart had just conquered Vienna on his three main fronts of opera, symphony and concerto, and now here were WSO having a big moment of their own.

And when Biret made her first piano entry . . . ah, that would be telling.

Richard Amey


Next WSO (Assembly Hall, 2.45) – Sunday November 4, ‘Queen of Coloratura’:  Helena Dix (soprano) in Ode To A Nightingale (Harty) and Desdemona’s final prayer including Ave Maria (Verdi’s Otello), plus Force of Destiny (Verdi overture), A Shropshire Lad (Butterworth); Romeo & Juliet (Tchaikovsky fantasy-overture).

Next International Interview Concert (St Paul’s, 3.30pm for 4pm, set in the round), Sunday, November 18, ‘Dances Fires & Fragrances’ – Rhythmie Wong (Hong Kong, piano – 2018 Sussex International Piano Competition finalist):  La Valse (Ravel), music from the Firebird ballet (Stravinsky), Iberia, Book One (Albeniz), The Maiden & The Nightingale (Granados),  Sonata No 52 in Eb (Haydn), plus Ask a Question, Mystery Music Spot, and Chinese surprises.

Concert with Live Concert recording for Naxos of 2 Mozart Piano Concertos: Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, pianist Idil Biret;
Handel, The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba from the oratorio Solomon (oboists, Maxwell Spiers, Rachel Ingleton)
Mozart, Piano Concerto No 27 in Bb K595
Boyce, Symphony No 2 in A (Ode for the King’s Birthday)
Mozart, Piano Concerto in C K503.