Thursday, 15 February 2018

Review of Halle Valentine's Day concert

The Hallé’s Pop concerts master-minded and conducted by Stephen Bell are well established, and none more so than the Valentine’s Day special: last night was an ‘opera lovers’ programme, with an attractive selection of excerpts – some really well known, some a little off the beaten track – plus Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story thrown in for good measure.

What gave the concert distinction was the quality of the tenor and soprano soloists. Noah Stewart has endeared himself to audiences here in Manchester since Opera North picked him as an outstanding Pinkerton for their Madama Butterfly a few years ago, and he’s appeared on big stages in London, too, as well as BBC’s Songs of Praise.

His refined, pitch-perfect voice is a real pleasure to hear, and he’s got stage presence and acting ability, too. He was well complemented by Sarah Fox, a Yorkshire girl and Kathleen Ferrier Award winner who can impress in many styles, including the most technically demanding, and in both cases they give a concert audience a taste of what real opera singers sound like – rather than the ersatz ‘opera singers’ who always need a microphone to make themselves heard.

Stephen Bell’s way with the orchestra is laid back, to say the least, and they jogged their way through Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture and the Wedding March, too. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana had a bit more class (the harp bass notes attractively in tune, which you don’t always get when you’re well into a full theatre performance), and they let rip with the Grand March from Aida to open the concert’s second half. Leader Paul Barritt played the Thaïs Méditation solo with sweetness and affection, too.

Noah Stewart began with Recondita Armonia from Tosca, by Puccini, sung in fine style, and ‘Una furtiva lacrima’ from L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) had a well-projected ending – this guy is the real deal when it comes to Romantic tenors, and the audience loved his Nessun Dorma.

Sarah Fox’s first solo was ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontano’ from Catalani’s La Wally, one of those excerpts that are almost the only part of a once-successful opera to survive. It showed off her excellent control of a long melodic line, while Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt was a charmer, and the Song to the Moon from Rusalka equaled it.

Together they sailed through duets from Gounod’s Faust, Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz and ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La Bohème (delicately ending with two top Cs, floated from off-stage), and rewarded their hearers’ enthusiastic acclaim with the Brindisi from La Traviata.

Real opera lovers go to see operas, rather than listening to excerpts in a concert hall, but it was a relaxing night for tune lovers – and we’re all those at heart.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Review of Halle concert with Ryan Wigglesworth

There’s nothing like a concert mainly on the theme of death to brighten a cold, wet February evening in Manchester.

But principal guest conductor Ryan Wigglesworth’s programme with the Hallé was worth braving the elements for – and the musical reflections on departure and its obsequies proved rewarding, too. Perhaps I’m being overly lugubrious to characterize Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet score as being about death, but the eponymous sad little puppet in the fairground show does end as a victim of murder by another puppet, and (as you’ll know if you’ve seen the ballet performed) the ending – included in most concert performances now – shows a very corporeal appearance of his cheeky spirit ascending to find its heavenly reward.

It’s a gloriously colourful piece of writing, and Ryan Wigglesworth expounded the score from the outset with meticulous care and vivid and exhilarating sounds. It wasn’t a romp through a standard repertoire piece with no subtlety, either – Katherine Baker’s solo flute playing was quite magical, and the solo trumpet of Gareth Small later on was quite enchanting. Some of the melody lines occasionally were hidden in the richness of the instrumentation we were urged to enjoy, but that was only on a few occasions.

Another kind of after-death experience was described in the piece before, Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder – about a heaven for animals as described in the opera it’s taken from. It was notable mainly for the virtuosity of the percussion used to set its various celestial scenes.

The highspot of the concert came after the interval, when bass singer Brindley Sherratt was soloist for Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, in Shostakovich’s orchestral version. Brindley Sherratt has a wonderfully rich timbre for Russian music, varying from the finely-judged morendo at the close of the first song (Lullaby) to the shock of death’s final greedy clutch of a poor girl in the second (Serenade), and with much more in imaginative presentation besides. Ryan Wigglesworth realized the vivid scoring and swinging rhythms here and in Trepak and The Field Marshal with great skill.

And they followed that with Mahler’s Totenfeier – or the first draft of his ‘Resurrection’ symphony’s first movement, if you prefer to think of it that way. This is the funeral march, though. No heaven-storming paean of choral confidence in an after-life is heard … though the gently rising major theme that way well signify at least a hope of consolation is repeatedly present, and all the more significant for being the only positive expression to pierce the grimness. The full 50-strings Hallé sound was particularly opulent by this time and proved a benediction in itself.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

CDs of my year: a personal selection

Here’s a personal set of CD reviews for Christmas – maybe these could help solve your present problems …

Wagner: Parsifal (soloists, Hallé Orchestra, Royal Opera Chorus, Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLD 7539 , 2CDs)
This is a BBC recording of the complete Parsifal given by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé at the London Proms last year, issued on the Hallé label as a 70th birthday present for Sir Mark in June this year. It sounds remarkably well, considering the Royal Albert Hall was the ‘studio’, and the performance itself is superb in every respect. Personally I find the work something of an acquired taste, but it’s clear that Si Mark has acquired it, and he sustains the atmosphere of rapt contemplation throughout (he calls it a ‘one-shirt work’ in contrast to the other Wagner music dramas for which at least two shirts’ worth of perspiration is needed). If you can handle hearing all those Dresden Amens (a Lead-Kindly-Leitmotif, if ever there was one), then this is for you, too.

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies nos. 4 and 6 (Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLL 7547)
Sir Mark and the Halle have already recorded VW’s symphonies 1, 2, 5 and 8 to considerable acclaim, and this is an equally notable document. The works are each in their own way ‘war’ symphonies, the fourth dissonantly angry and full of foreboding (though with beautiful melody, too), the sixth seen by many as post-war reaction to the horror of Hiroshima, with its long, almost featureless and eery finale. Sir Mark always brings freshness and clarity to his music, and this is no exception.

Scriabin: Symphony no. 2; Piano concerto (Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein, conducted by Vasily Petrenko: LAWO Classics  LWC1139)
Scriabin’s earlier works are being championed by Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, and offer a few surprises to the listener who (like most of us) does not know them as regular concert repertoire. They’re closer in style to the high Romantic vein of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov than Scriabin’s most visionary, later music, which makes them a rewarding experience in the hands of such a great-sounding orchestra as this and its highly gifted conductor – also music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. On the other hand, they’re somewhat uneven, the major example of this being the finale of the second symphony, where after a seriously discursive first two movements (like a vast slow introduction and allegro), a beautiful Andante and a lively scherzo, descends into mere vainglorious posturing where something much weightier is needed. But well worth hearing for the beauties along the way. 

‘Suites and Fantasies’, various composers (Joo Yeon Sir, violin, Irina Andrievsky, piano: Rubicon RCD1003)
As debut discs by solo violinists go, this is an exceptionally rewarding and entertaining one. Joo Yeon Sir’s technique is fabulous, and she is recorded by Andrew Keener and produced by Matthew Cosgrove – both signs of superb quality. She and Irina Andrievsky play the charming pastiche (or is it?) Suite in Old Style by Schnittke, Falla’s Suite Popular Española, Britten’s youthfully spiky Suite for Violin and Piano op. 3, Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and Frolov’s Concert Fantasy on themes from ‘Porgy and Bess’ – what’s not to like? Highly recommended.

‘The Silver Stars at Play’, contemporary Christmas carols (Kantos Chamber Choir, directed by Elspeth Slorach: Prima Facie PFCD075)
A great idea to fill a CD with new, or mainly new, settings of Christmas music, sung by Kantos, the choir of emerging professional singers of the north west, conducted by their director Elspeth Slorach. There are many little gems here (though, as with any collection of such a kind, the quality of the material varies), among them Paul Ayres’ Hodie Christus natus est, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s This Time is born a Child, Andrew Cusworth’s Of a Rose, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Child of the Manger, Andrew Mayes’ Christmas Music and Mark Hewitt’s Silent Night setting – and the title piece, by Colin Hand.

Adam Gorb: Dancing in the Ghetto and other works (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic 10/10 Ensemble, conducted by Clark Rundell; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by Mark Heron and Timothy Reynish; Manchester Camerata, conducted by Mark Heron: Prima Facie PFCD047)
This collection of recent works for large ensembles by the Royal Northern College of Music’s head of the school of composition – whose highly crafted writing I always find stimulating and usually very enjoyable – has two pieces with the kind of over-the-top, klezmer-influenced, knees-up dance rhythms he’s so good at (Dancing in the Ghetto and Weimar), along with his Symphony no. 1 in C, which is light-hearted, a little bit referential and enormous fun, and Serenade for Spring, which does exactly what it says on the tin. The last piece, Love Transforming, is a long, slow, deeply felt single movement written for Timothy Reynish’s 75th birthday concert and a very different kind of music, but equally intense. I was there for the concert when it was unveiled, and though the recording cannot capture the spatial effects it creates alongside exploring fascinating timbres, I’ll stick to my verdict then that it is ‘both evocative and a model of how to write clearly and imaginatively for unusual textures’.

Anthony Gilbert: ‘Travelling with Time’, recent music on historical themes (various performers: Prima Facie PFCD041)
A collection of pieces written over the past 30 years by Adam Gorb’s predecessor at the RNCM, Anthony Gilbert, this links them together by imagining a journey through history from the 9th century to the 20th, with music for voice, instruments, cello, piano, string quartet and string orchestra. The stand-out for me is Another Dream Carousel, an evocation of Viennese life prior to the Nazis’ horrors – I admired the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s playing of this when it was new in 2000 and it’s good to have it on this disc.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Hallé’s Messiah: review

The Hallé’s annual performance of Messiah has a venerable tradition. Begun by Charles Hallé in December 1858, it’s been the subject of interpretations by some of its great permanent conductors and for many years an exercise in the grand effects of massed choral singing beloved of our forebears. Barbirolli, theatrically, used to have his choir shout the last ‘Hallelujah!’ of the allegro tempo as loud as they could – that certainly made you jump!

This year’s conductor, John Butt, is from a different stable. His award-winning recordings of great choral works of the baroque period, Messiah among them, are usually made with very small forces and represent, as closely as scholarship can define, the original details of a particular performance.

Someone once said that if you want to imitate the performance conditions Handel faced, you should stage the smallest orchestra you think you can get away with, and then make sure that they outnumber the chorus. But there’s no chance of that in a Hallé performance in the big space of the Bridgewater Hall (which was virtually sold out on Saturday) – so what we had was historically informed, rather than historically authentic.

It was a brilliant success in practice. John Butt performed the work without cuts, and brought a sense of the lively, dancing rhythms of much of Handel’s music, a near-operatic pace, as the units of the first part (in particular) unfold like scenes on a stage, and a good ear for dramatic effect, which Handel’s instincts provide and which can be leveraged well enough in an enlarged setting such as this without deserting the sound qualities of the original instrumentation (the chattering oboes duplicating the violin lines are always really effective).

He didn’t completely buy into Barbirolli’s idea that the chorus should begin ‘Glory to God’ sotto voce, to fulfil the ‘da lontano’ marking and make the angels glide into our foreground as if on the wing, but he had their accompanying trumpets up on high, sounding from the very heavens.

And for the final chorus he threw modesty to the winds and had Christopher Stokes open up the resources of the Marcussen organ (instead of a chamber instrument) for once, to accompany the choral peroration – a spine-tingling moment.

His soloists were a gifted quartet: outstanding among them the tenor Thomas Walker, who brought the arresting style of baroque opera to his recitatives and was outstanding in the Passion music, and Mhairi Lawson, who beamed like an angel, with the glow of telling the Gospel story as if we’d never heard it before. They, and mezzo Anna Stéphany and baritone Robert Davies, were perfectly on-message with baroque embellishments and shakes – although I noticed that ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was closer to the Victorian preference for effect through simplicity, and none the worse for it.

The Hallé Choir sang with consistent precision and excellent attack, particularly in ‘O Thou that tellest’, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ and, of course, ‘Hallelujah!’ – well worth standing for. Tradition has its place, and there is still a thrill in seeing an entire house acknowledge the presence of the King of Kings.

(The historical note in the printed programme needs some adjustment, particularly if it’s to be used again any time. Charles Hallé’s first Messiah in Manchester was in December 1858, when he began a ‘Manchester Choral Society’ series – with his new orchestra and alongside his other concerts – that continued until 1861. The only reason the oratorio doesn’t feature in the collected programmes of his orchestral concerts until later is that, although there was a ‘repetition’ added to the latter in March 1859, subsequently the Choral Society series included the work in December 1859 and December 1860: only when the two series were amalgamated in 1861 does the December Messiah appear as part of the ‘new look’ season. Look at the concert records and contemporary newspapers and it’s all there. And Sims Reeves, the great Victorian soloist, was a tenor.)

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review of Halle concert with Ryan Wigglesworth

Ryan Wigglesworth, principal guest conductor of the Hallé, gave a programme for this week’s ‘Opus One’ concert that would have seemed outrageously heavyweight for that audience a few years ago. But it wasn’t, and the reception for Mahler’s fourth symphony showed just how much the traditionally ‘popular’ Opus One repertoire has come closer to that of the reputedly ‘heavy’ Thursday series.

He began with Mozart, and a concert aria to boot, which certainly won friends and influenced people. Joanne Lunn, the soprano who stepped in to replace Elizabeth Watts, was a charming performer of Ch’io mi scordi di te? – a classical stylist whose voice quality betrays hidden depths and holds manifest richness. In partnership with Ryan Wigglesworth (who directed and played the piano part Mozart originally wrote for himself), the piece was poised and elegantly phrased, with a controlled burst of passion for ‘Stelle barbare …’ and a degree of agitation perceptible in the final stanza (and some fiercer wind playing in its reprise).

More Mozart followed, keeping the chamber orchestra sized team of strings for his Symphony no. 34 (K338). It’s intellectual weight is in the first movement, which was taken at a sober pace for vivace, allowing for crisply articulated lines, some moments of foreboding and a grand gesture to end with. Perhaps Ryan Wigglesworth was seeking impact and profundity in the slow movement, too, among its graceful melodic shapes and occasional harmonic surprises, but I’m not sure there was much there to be found. The finale – an overture in all but name, with an ear-worm of a main theme – produced even and efficiently busy string playing from the Hallé, led by Paul Barritt.

Then it was time for Mahler. Symphony no. 4 is considered one of his most ‘approachable’, on account of its gentle melodies and cheerful themes associated with the Des Knaben Wunderhorn song that concludes the work, and in this reading it began all grace and gradual transition, with skillfully balanced textures and contrasts of woodwind tone the most telling aspect of the playing.

But of course there is something more macabre to come, and it made itself more apparent in the playfulness of the second movement, the symphony’s scherzo. Ryan Wigglesworth followed all the score’s directions to the letter, with never any additional stroke of drama. There was warmth from the horns in chorus and silvery beauty from the strings in the long slow movement, with peace and goodwill its dominant aspect, even in the ‘surprise’ gesture at its close, which was neat if not exactly startling.

Joanne Lunn returned to sing the solo of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ in the final movement, with beautiful pianissimo and a lovely portamento for St Ursula. The movement’s last defiance was an emphatic blast at the repetition of the opening theme of the whole work – a nice touch.

Ryan Wigglesworth and Joann Lunn

Monday, 6 November 2017

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert (Brett Dean, Sally Beamish, Beethoven and Elgar)

The BBC Philharmonic plunged into music of the 21st century on Saturday at the Bridgewater HalHall, with Simone Young conducting and Jonathan Biss their piano soloist.

(It was balanced with Beethoven and Elgar, but more of that later).

Brett Dean’s Testament, in its 2008 revision for orchestra, was a stimulating beginning. It’s inspired by Beethoven’s ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ – the unsent letter in which he grappled with thoughts of suicide (‘Testament’ in this context = a will, to be read after one’s death) but resolved to pursue his calling as a musician in spite of encroaching deafness.

The composer’s description itemizes a three-stage process of ‘leave-taking, an acceptance and a fresh start’, and that’s certainly mirrored in the music. It was played with care and considerable precision, Yuri Torchinsky in the leader’s chair of the Phil.

The other novelty – Sally Beamish’s Piano Concerto no. 3, ‘City Stanzas’ – was premiered in January this year and written (at Jonathan Biss’s request) explicitly to ‘partner’ Beethoven’s first piano concerto. Beamish says it was affected by the political situation in the UK and USA as she composed it last year, and that it’s ‘darkly sardonic’ in all three movements. I have the impression that its concept changed as she worked on it, and that the intention to write something about urban landscapes took on grimmer aspects without completely extinguishing the more light-hearted aspects which she may have had in mind originally.

Its structure follows that of the Beethoven concerto, with the marching rhythms of its opening turned quite militaristic and grotesque, and its ‘second subject’ making a strong and near-lyrical impression, though with heavy tread. The slow movement’s bleak sound, with gloomy chords from the piano and lugubrious woodwind solos, is a real lament for something lost. The finale catches Beethoven’s lightness and wit – a touch of dance band music included – but ends with a good deal more anger than he put in: a testament to 2016’s politics, I guess.

Jonathan Biss played the solo part with love and expertise, and the BBC Philharmonic backed him all the way. In the actual Beethoven Piano concerto no. 1 (which preceded the Beamish concerto), we had a stylistic mix, with the orchestra’s beginning in attempts to inject lightness and classical articulation to their sound but reverting more to their tried-and-tested tutti quality as time went on. Jonathan Biss was a model of classical decorum, but added telling passion and drama in the course of the first movement – almost as if a new music was being invented before our very eyes. The slow movement had a poised solo with muscular accompaniment.

The concert ended with Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations. The Phil, of course, can play this with their eyes shut, and the accent in some places was again on muscularity, with a big finish that brought an enthusiastic reception. It was in the quieter and gentler movements, however, that their best qualities came out.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review of Hallé performance of Shostakovich Symphony no. 4

The most substantial of Sir Mark Elder’s three opening programmes with the Hallé for the 2017-18 season came last (after an Opus One set and a Thursday concert), on Saturday, as a ‘Hallé Collection’ evening.

Unusually, it was a ‘Beyond the Score’ night, with a single work in focus, illustrated and illuminated first by a film-plus-actors sequence, with musical extracts played by the Orchestra and Sir Mark, and then the full piece done ‘straight’, after the interval.

These presentations, devised by Gerard McBurney for the Chicago Symphony, have been used by the Hallé twice before – the ‘New World’ symphony and the Enigma Variations being the subject-matter. This was altogether weightier historical subject matter: Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4.

In fact there’s so much to be said about the fourth symphony – withdrawn from the public on the eve of its première in 1936, in the wake of the ‘muddle instead of music’ campaign against Shostakovich (most probably directly inspired by Stalin) and never heard until December 1961 – that contextualizing it fully, even with abundant clips from old Soviet newsreels and projections of contemporary posters, with excerpts from letters and speeches by key players in the drama – was bound to be an impossible task.

The printed concert programme, striving for background to the background, gave us much information but didn’t explain whose voices we were hearing or what the origins of the clips were. So it was an impressionistic glimpse of an alien and terrible time that came across: powerful if not informative, and veering towards a message that certain parts of the work were ‘about’ such things as factory output, poverty and deprivation, sport and recreation, home and family, and so on.

In fact the music spoke more clearly when it was ‘about’ nothing but itself. And that was in the second half, as Sir Mark piloted the orchestra through a performance that seized and maintained tension from the outset. The fourth is a massive, sprawling symphony that seems like Mahler’s constructions in some respects, employs an orchestra of the size he would have liked, and uses its potential for massive effects and chamber-music-like interludes in a somewhat similar way.

One challenge of performing it is to maintain a continuing musicality, particularly through the long first movement – as Günther Herbig did when he conducted it with the BBC Philharmonic for the Hallé/Phil Shostakovich cycle in 2010. As then, there were outstanding solos from the wind instruments along with bitingly satirical episodes, and Elder’s string section has a silky tenderness that fits the mood of the quieter music in both the first two movements beautifully.

And Elder found a trudgingly determined pace for the funereal (and Mahlerian, if you think of his first symphony) tune of the slow movement, fatalistic yet determined, with incredible intensity and wonderful lyricism alongside it. This was truly the emotional heart of the work.

By contrast, the finale bounced along with heady optimism and dashed into its Keystone Cops, clown-style sequence with zest. The big (mock?) peroration was powerful in the extreme – making the doom-laden epitaph to it all the more harrowing.

It was a great performance. The one question I’d have liked to have considered was this: when Shostakovich wrote the fifth symphony, as ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’, had he really undergone a change of heart musically?

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé