Review: Alcina (Longborough Festival Opera)

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at  Longborough  on Saturday 30 July.


Longborough Opera House

Cotswold Bayreuth

In this Shakespeare anniversary year, what a pity that Handel never wrote any Shakespeare-inspired operas! Perhaps, in staging Alcina, Longborough was trying to make up for that. After all: a tale of lovers trapped on a mysterious island ruled by a powerful magician, haunted by a sense of transformation and loss? Mix in a bit of baroque gender-swapping and Alcina isn’t so very far from The Tempest.

Certainly, it would explain why director Jenny Miller had the musicians of the orchestra spilling up onto the stage, barefoot and antler-clad like the sorcereress Alcina’s victims (she likes to transform discarded lovers into wildlife). And why at moments of crisis the characters stepped in amongst the players, seeming to direct their pleas to the spirit of the music itself: the real enchantment here being Handel’s “sounds and sweet airs”. Faye Bradley’s abstract sets certainly created an air of an alternative reality: occult-looking ox skulls hung on poles, a glowing orange disc represented Alcina’s island, and a blue moon glowered down. Dan Saggars’s lighting was simple but effective in tracing the slow fading of the illusion.

And under Miller’s direction, this was a reality peopled with lively, believable individuals: no mean feat when you’re dealing with humans transformed into lions and boys playing girls while girls pretend to be boys. A youthful but highly experienced cast went at it with total conviction. Lucy Hall, as the Ariel-like Morgana, was exuberantly, sensuously physical, while Anna Harvey made a poised and noble Bradamante. At the start, she changed into her vaguely Edwardian men’s garb on stage – typical of Miller’s imaginative approach to clarifying a far from simple plot.

And typical, too, was the fact that if Julia Sitkovetsky, as Alcina, didn’t have the most lustrous voice on stage – that belonged to her love-slave Ruggiero, sung with glowing expression by Hanna-Liisa Kirchin – the piercing fragility of her top register made her both otherworldly and strangely touching as she lamented her lost love and fading powers. Kirchin has a compelling stage presence, and made a wonderful counterpart to Rosie Lomas’s bell-like purity as the boy Oberto.

With earthy, unfussy playing from the period-instrument orchestra under Jeremy Silver (plus a delightfully inventive continuo group), it all came together. No stand-and-deliver baroque tedium here: this Alcina creates a living, breathing fantasy world – and casts a spell to which it’s a pleasure to surrender.

Review: Benjamin Appl at Tardebigge

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at  Tardebigge Church  on Sunday 26 June.


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Tardebigge Steeple photo by Annette Rubery.

I’m sure Birmingham Post readers will understand how the A38 and M42 conspired to make me miss the first half of the opening concert of this summer’s Celebrating English Song series at Tardebigge church, performed by pianist Simon Lepper and the extraordinary young Bavarian baritone Benjamin Appl. I can only regret that I’m unable to comment on a first half that included songs by Haydn, Finzi and Barber – except to say that the choice of composers alone shows what an open-minded definition of “English song” the organisers employ.

And that Appl’s interpretations would surely have been richly worth hearing. Appl’s a former protégé of Fischer-Dieskau, but he’s no unreflecting traditionalist. He’s recently toured a programme of Schubert, Grieg and Nico Muhly, and Muhly’s mini-cycle The Last Letter – a keenly-imagined setting of anonymous love letters from the First World War, rounded off with a verse by Schiller – showed Appl’s ability to switch mood and timbre in a blink; to colour words, and to yield to Lepper’s subtle, endlessly detailed piano part.

Then came a sequence of songs by Ivor Gurney interspersed with songs by Ian Venables on the subject of – or setting poems by – Gurney. It worked well; Venables’s plangent melodies elegantly setting off Gurney’s restless little tone-poems of longing and loss. Appl and Lepper painted them with rich colours and deep feeling: if there were very occasional slips of pronunciation, I’ve certainly heard far worse from Anglophone singers in Schubert. And what does that matter against the radiant surge of tone with which Lepper and Appl soared over the crest of Gurney’s In Flanders? This music, so intimately rooted in Severnside, has never felt more part of a shared European tradition. Supply your own political metaphor.

 

Review: CBSO & Nic McGegan

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at  Symphony Hall on Wednesday 1 June.


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Nic!

What do Berlioz, Purcell, Nicolai, Vaughan Williams and Cole Porter all have in common? On the strength of this Shakespeare 400 concert by the CBSO under Nicholas McGegan, they all wrote Shakespearean music that doesn’t seem to contain much actual Shakespeare. And that’s about it. But they did add up to a very long concert – finishing just shy of 10pm, even after Sullivan’s delightful Merchant of Venice suite had been cut to a paltry three movements.

Still, as Birmingham audiences well know, Nicholas McGegan’s concerts are never routine: he’s so enthusiastic that those two and a half hours positively danced by. McGegan brings such warmth that you have to ask why we don’t hear Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor overture or Sullivan’s suite more often. And of course, both Cole Porter and Purcell were basically in showbiz: singers Sandra Piques Eddy and Duncan Rock waltzed stylishly through a selection from Kiss Me, Kate (the orchestra could have done with keeping down) before McGegan unleashed four soloists and the full CBSO Chorus on a performance of Act IV of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen that will have silenced all but the sourest of early music fundamentalists with its style and splendour.

Earlier, soprano Fflur Wyn had sparkled and charmed her way through Arne’s Shakespeare settings – a rare bit of actual Bard – and held the entire hall rapt as she and Eddy floated the duet from Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict over McGegan’s shimmering accompaniment. But the real discovery was Vaughan Williams’s In Windsor Forest: a playful choral suite, sung by the CBSO Chorus with a radiance and subtlety that made you long to hear them again in the Sea Symphony. It’d be perfect for the Last Night of the Proms.

Review: Sinfonia of Birmingham

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Adrian Boult Hall on Monday 23 May.


Sutton Coldfield

Yes, it says “Royal”. What?

If it’s true that you can always tell when non-professional orchestras haven’t rehearsed the concerto properly, boy, can you hear it when they have. When Savitri Grier played the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Sinfonia of Birmingham under Michael Seal, it was her playing, of course, that took the spotlight – a deep, eloquent tone, making every line sing, and all delivered with remarkable poise and flair. But you also noticed how Seal and his orchestra were behind her, and inside the music, every bar of the way.

That began with the very opening: in those brief seconds of icy rustlings Seal created both a sense of space, and an atmosphere (never the easiest thing to achieve in Sutton Coldfield Town Hall). Orchestral tuttis surged up like lava, woodwinds danced and swirled, and the whole thing felt like one huge, unified, sweep of music: the symphony Sibelius never wrote.

Earlier, Seal and the Sinfonia had given us a foretaste of what to expect in Berlioz’s King Lear overture. The brass snarled and snapped, cellos and basses thundered out their recitatives with a suitably black voice, and – in the introduction – the whole band achieved a magical transparency as Berlioz layers hushed violins over throbbing woodwinds and a sombre brass chorale.

And they followed up with a Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony that exceeded even the already high voltage of the Sibelius. If the strings were starting to buckle slightly under the strain, the woodwinds (and the bassoons in particular) were gloriously on song. It was heartening to see what looked like a larger than usual audience for this Sutton Philharmonic Society concert, too. With standards as consistently high as this, no self-respecting music lover in North Birmingham should still be staying away from these Monday evening concerts.

 

Review: BCMG at the Adrian Boult Hall

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Adrian Boult Hall on Friday 20 May.


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The ABH: the end of a very short book that no-one enjoyed reading.

I come to bury the Adrian Boult Hall, not to praise it. At the not-exactly-ripe age of 30, it’s scheduled to be the next victim of the orgy of demolition currently wrecking the city centre for another generation. And so BCMG returned to the venue of its very first concerts for the very last time, teaming up with the chamber choir Via Nova for a rather subdued wake – though one that wasn’t without a few quiet smiles.

Those came courtesy of Howard Skempton – a sympathetic presence in tonight’s audience, as he is at so many BCMG concerts. Ulrich Heinen performed Skempton’s Six Figures for unaccompanied cello from memory, and Malcolm Wilson brought a wonderfully deadpan sense of timing to three piano miniatures from Skempton’s Nocturnes and Reflections.

They didn’t need anything more: Skempton’s music thrives on understatement, and the unexpected ending of his a capella suite The Flight of Song, performed by Via Nova, drew a ripple of appreciative amusement from the small audience. Charlotte Bray’s dark, volatile Perseus (performed by Wilson and Heinen) and Betsy Jolas’s chant-like Music to Go (Heinen joined by viola player Chris Yates) completed a distinctly wry first half.

It all came into focus after the interval, when Daniel Galbreath conducted Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Part ritual, part requiem, part haunting sonic sculpture, it was an inspired choice to mark the passing of a space devoted to music, and Via Nova sang with hushed concentration while three BCMG players calmly sketched the boundaries of a vast, resonant universe around them. It was beautifully done, and this was one of those all-too-rare occasions when the ABH’s atmosphere and acoustic actually felt exactly right. Too bad.

April scribblings

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Twenty minutes ago in Lichfield we had a hailstorm. Now it looks like this:017

I’ve given up trying to wrap my head around the seasons because this month it’s been pretty much non-stop scribble scribble scribble, as George III supposedly said to Dr Johnson. I’ve had reviews in The Spectator for Birmingham Conservatoire’s Anglo-French triple-bill and the RAM’s May Night, reviewed a new opera and a Shakespeare celebration for The Birmingham Post and taken the road to Buxton to cover English Touring Opera’s spring season (well, 2/3 of it) for The Arts Desk. Not that I need much excuse to visit Buxton Opera House: this has surely got to be Britain’s best drive to work. Bit of RVW on the stereo: magic.

A515 Buxton

And last night I heard the UK premiere of a masterpiece – also for The Arts Desk.

On top of that, I’ve been working with The Philharmonia, Performances Birmingham, the CBSO and Warwick Arts Centre on their 16-17 season brochures. It’s a privilege to see what’s coming up next season but a couple of things are so exciting that it’s been quite hard to bite my tongue. And programme notes for two great festivals: four heavyweight programmes for Salzburg – any chance to write about Mozart is always a pleasure – and a whole raft of really wonderful English music, including some real favourites of mine, for the Three Choirs (it’s in Gloucester this year, btw).

Those came courtesy of two great colleagues, Gavin Plumley (he’s got a Wigmore Hall debut coming up and knowing the care and expertise he brings to everything he does, it should be superb) and Clare Stevens, who’s currently blogging the story of her grandmother’s experiences in the Easter Rising of 1916: a really remarkable piece of family history. I’ve also written about a couple of fascinating programmes for the Wigmore Hall and the Barbican and an article on Verdi’s Falstaff for the CBSO’s in-house magazine Music Stand. And did you know that Arthur Bliss wrote a Fanfare for the National Fund for Crippling Diseases? Don’t ask…

And that’s not to mention my most exciting project so far for Gramophone: a reassessment of Carlos Kleiber’s classic 1976 recording of Die Fledermaus, co-written (to my astonishment and awe) with one of the greatest living experts on operetta, Andrew Lamb. A huge privilege and actually enormous fun; I think it’s being published in the July edition, though meanwhile Gramophone has been keeping me busy with everything from Johann Strauss and Balfe to Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. Full list here. They know me too well already…

Anyway, tonight it’s Mark Simpson’s new opera Pleasure at Opera North (for The Spectator); the next few weeks of opera-going will take me to Guildford, Cardiff, Wolverhampton and Glasgow, so if I’m quiet again for a bit, my apologies.

Review: Kidderminster Choral Society

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Kidderminster Town Hall on Saturday 19  March.


Handel’s The King Shall Rejoice, Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Mozart’s anything-but-solemn Solemn Vespers – the Kidderminster Choral Society clearly likes to keep itself busy. This was a concert of pretty much wall-to-wall choral singing, and none the worse for it: three top-flight masterpieces delivered with energy and zing under the Society’s artistic director Geoffrey Weaver.

And that was despite the stage arrangements at Kidderminster’s Victorian Town Hall – which split the choir in two and stacked them steeply on either side of the organ. The KCS is clearly well-used to this: they produced a big, bright mass of sound, with a brilliant soprano section and a more than usually lively team of altos. In the Haydn, they sounded like they were enjoying every note. Weaver kept it bowling along and the choir responded with lively, natural phasing and crisp, clearly enunciated interjections in the Gloria.

Perhaps he might have paced the Benedictus to make more a climax out of the arrival of Haydn’s warlike trumpets – but there was no doubt that the spirit of the thing was there in spades. It helped that they had such a winningly youthful line-up of soloists: contralto Elisabeth Paul, tenor Christopher Fitzgerald-Lombard and bass Andrew Randall. But the real heroine of the evening was the soprano Gemma King, standing in at one day’s notice, and singing with a pure, vibrato-light tone and such smiling freshness that you’d never have known it.

A couple of caveats: there’d be room in the nicely-produced programme book for the text and translations – these should be provided as a matter of course. And as Richard Strauss once said: don’t look at the trombones, it only encourages them. Throughout the first half, one of the Elgar Sinfonia’s trombonists (unnamed in the programme) honked it out so noisily that any chance of distinguishing the chorus’s words was obliterated, at least from where I was sitting. 

Review: Klee Quartet plays Kurtag and Gurney

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St Nicholas Codsall

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Codsall Community Arts Festival on Tuesday 15  March.


You’ve got to hand it to the Codsall Community Arts Festival. Many festivals simply pick their concert programmes from a set menu provided by the ensemble. But at Codsall, having made the Great War a theme, they contacted Gloucester Library, sought out the manuscript of Gurney’s incomplete String Quartett [sic] of 1918-19, and persuaded the Klee Quartet to play it alongside Purcell’s Fantasia No.12 and – seriously – György Kurtág’s Six Moments Musicaux.

That would be a risky programme even at Birmingham Town Hall. I’m pleased to report that St Nicholas’s Church was well filled and that the audience listened with every sign of intense concentration, barring the lady next to me who unwrapped and munched a Mars Bar in the second movement of the Gurney. Did it work? The first half certainly did.

The Tokyo-based Klee Quartet – currently studying at Birmingham Conservatoire – plays with subtlety, style and intense commitment. They began the Fantasia without vibrato, gradually starting to colour Purcell’s plaintive D minor phrases as the music unfolded. Then they launched straight into the Kurtág – with passion, precision and a range of colours that made every pizzicato slide or barely-audible sul ponticello shiver tell its own story. Above it all, leader Naoko Senda’s rich, ardent tone left no doubt that we were hearing emotion as well as fierce intelligence.

If only they’d managed to get quite so completely inside the Gurney: though much as it hurts to say it, maybe there isn’t really very much to get inside. It’s tender and lyrical: it’s also rambling and diffuse. The Klees were clearly game, but even they couldn’t quite convince you that there were worthwhile ideas to be found beyond the ravishing first theme of the Adagio. Still, Gurney needs to be heard, and thanks to the Codsall Festival he was. That’s something.

Larks ascending

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So, the morning after we saw Birmingham Conservatoire’s production of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, we drove to Bath. It was a beautiful clear day and the roads were empty, so at Cirencester we decided to take a slight diversion – and make a long-intended pilgrimage to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birthplace, the Cotswold village of Down Ampney.

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I’d always lazily pictured it in some little Gloucestershire valley or on a hillside, like Painswick or the Slaughters. In fact, it lies some miles behind the Cotswold escarpment in wide open countryside, rolling so gently that it’s practically flat.

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Other than that, it’s much as you’d expect – quiet, certainly not coach party-pretty, but extremely pleasant: birdsong was in the air on this March afternoon, and there’s clearly as much going on as you’d imagine in any medium-sized English village.

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There’s no museum or monument to RVW. And unless you’ve done your homework, there’s no outward sign to tell you that the village’s Old Vicarage was the birthplace of Britain’s greatest symphonist post-Elgar. We didn’t hang around outside; it’s clearly still a family home and anyone who’s ever lived in an Oxford college knows what it’s like to look out of your living room window and see a tourist camera pointed straight back. It’s shielded from the road by thick yew hedges. We didn’t want to turn into stalkers, so we walked on.

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Instead Down Ampney wears its connection to RVW modestly, but with quiet pride – exactly how you suspect he’d have wanted it. The focus for pilgrims is the village church of All Saints, located next to the manor house down a quiet lane about 10 minutes’ walk from the village centre.

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It’s not all about RVW. There was an RAF base in the nearby fields during World War 2 and the churchyard has numerous war graves. There’s also a Victorian stained glass tribute to Vaughan Williams’ father, the Rev Arthur Vaughan Williams, who was vicar of Down Ampney at the time of Ralph’s birth. The church is unlocked during daylight, though a sign on the door warns you to shut it firmly after you “as birds find the interior fascinating”.

And there’s a small but very comprehensive exhibition about the composer at the back of the church, provided by the RVW society.

But the best finds were the little things that show that so many years later, RVW is still a presence in the life of this church and community – we spotted this embroidered hassock. And the music of the hymn Come Down O Love Divine was pinned to the organ – to the tune, of course, that Vaughan Williams wrote in 1904, and called (what else?) “Down Ampney”.

 

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