Bax to the future

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November Woods 3

November Woods in March

Travelling overseas at the weekend, I took Arnold Bax’s autobiography Farewell My Youth to read on the plane, and since it was a beautiful morning when I got back to Heathrow, I decided to break my journey back north and try and solve a musical puzzle that I’ve wondered about for years – since I first heard Bax’s November Woods in my student days, in fact. I’m very fond of Bax’s tone poems, but I’d always felt the need to put a slightly more tangible image to this piece (no such problem with Tintagel or The Garden of Fand). I’d read in a sleevenote that the woods in question were above Amersham, where in the autumn of 1916 Bax used to meet his mistress Harriet Cohen for stolen afternoons. He wrote one of his typically OTT poems about it, in fact – entitled Amersham.

…Like frightened children, silent, hand in hand,
Down the wet hill we stepped towards the flare;
Storm, a mad painter’s brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair;
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake,
And in our hearts tears stung and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.

Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shuts out awhile October’s sky of dread;
Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams
Nestled against my arm her little head…

Helen Fry’s biography of Harriet Cohen filled in a few more details. The inn was the Crown; Harriet used to travel out to Amersham by the Metropolitan Line, and therefore there’s only one candidate for the wood where the two lovers sheltered from that autumn storm, and which Bax later put into music. It’s Parsonage Woods, just under the railway bridge as Station Road falls away down towards Amersham High Street at the bottom of the valley.

I’m pleased to say that it’s all still there: the Crown Inn is still recognisably as black-beamed as Bax describes it, and very much open for business. (Dalliance with beautiful pianists not being an option, the breakfast menu looked quite tempting). And the woods themselves – well, they didn’t look much like their musical self on this bright spring morning, though looking westwards towards the other side of the valley you could certainly imagine them dripping and shuddering in an equinoctial gale. I may return in November just to double-check, though.

 

Review: Louis Lortie at Birmingham Conservatoire

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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 (ideally you should 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 Birmingham Conservatoire on Tuesday 17 March 2017.


 

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Not in here. It’s just a huge hole in the ground now.

These are the end times for the old Birmingham Conservatoire building. The demolition crews circle, and all eyes are already turned to the promised land of Eastside. But artistically, the Conservatoire is already well more than halfway there. For proof, look at the sheer calibre of the artists giving this spring’s concerts in the doomed Recital Hall: Jennifer Pike, the Heath Quartet, and on this occasion the eminent French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, playing music by George Benjamin and Chopin.

This is not a time for sentimentality, and Lortie’s Chopin was defiantly unsentimental. No romantic languour here; the emphasis was on tone-colour and rhythmic clarity. Lortie instantly and unfussily found the character of each of Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op.28: letting the melodic line of the swifter pieces glint like a darting fish in a crystal stream, making bass notes snarl and thunder, and in the gentler Preludes, allowing the melody to find its own level: falling easily over its accompaniment without any undue prodding or tugging.

Lortie can generate a blindingly intense tone on a single note, and after an emphatic finish to Prelude No.12, he seemed to expand into the second dozen. These were freer, more fantastic, and often fierce, and the cycle peaked with a Prelude No.15 that moved from limpid tenderness to a central climax of blazing severity. The softness and transparency of No.23’s spring shower felt all the sweeter for it.

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines – frigid, angular studies in grey – didn’t hold up well next to Chopin. But Lortie approached them with the same focus, offsetting the harshness of the musical foreground with misty echoes in the left hand. A musical reminder that there is, after all, a world elsewhere.

Unprecedented folly

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Mahler in Ljubljana: what were they thinking?

Reiner in Ljubljana: what were they thinking?

Like many people in the world of classical music, I’m worried by the trend of appointing young, unproven conductors to posts in major orchestras and opera houses. Sure, they look good in PR photos, but what experience can they possibly bring?

And what hope is there for the future of music if we continue with this craze for youth over experience? I’m talking about the likes of this young Gustav Mahler (23) at Olmutz, Hans Richter (25, Munich), Richard Strauss (21 – Meiningen – rumour has it he shares an agent with Hans von Bulow, if you want to know how this whole shadowy machine really works), Bruno Walter (21, Breslau), Otto Klemperer (22, Prague), Fritz Reiner (22, Laibach), Carlos Kleiber (28, Dusseldorf), Bernard Haitink, (26, Amsterdam), and Leonard Bernstein (25, New York).

Or worst of all, Wilhelm Furtwangler (21, Zurich) and Herbert von Karajan (21, Ulm) – what hope do either of these admittedly talented young people have of developing naturally as musicians when forced into the spotlight, and placed under such unrealistic pressure at such a young age? I fear for the art of music – really, I do.

Anyway, here’s something I wrote on the subject for The Spectator.

Review: RLPO / Petrenko & Daniil Trifonov

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My old pals the RLPO looking weirdly wonky

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 (ideally you should 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 Birmingham Conservatoire on Wednesday 1 February 2017.


Brummie pride manifests itself in some odd ways. It’s fantastic that we’ll pack out Symphony Hall for the home team, Mirga and the CBSO. But offered the chance to hear an artist as remarkable as the young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, to leave banks of seats empty seems very like cutting off your nose to spite your face. True, Trifonov has been extravagantly hyped since winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011. But what his performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrated beyond any doubt is that sometimes, hype is justified.

Trifonov played the Cinderella of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, the Fourth. His tone is rich and bright; he sculpts phrases as well as sings them, and he can flash in an instant from sonorous power to quicksilver brilliance. The effect, with Trifonov trailing luminous streams of fantasy across Rachmaninoff’s twilit skies, and Petrenko and his players supplying yearning, lovingly-phrased string tone and powerful rhythmic kicks as required, was as poetic as it was thrilling.

Petrenko and the RLPO had opened with a boisterous account of Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes, and devoted the second half to Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The RLPO has an utterly distinctive sound, at its most recognisable when the lower strings glow softly out of the silence. But these players can bite too, and in the monumental first movement Petrenko found a compelling tension between lyricism and steel-toothed aggression.

The scherzo threw coloured sparks in all directions, and the unstoppable machine-music of the finale developed a terrifying momentum. I have it on unimpeachable authority that this performance was a good ten minutes slower than when the CBSO Youth Orchestra played the Fifth a few years back. But I wouldn’t have guessed.

 

Review: Christophe Pregardien & Christophe Schnackertz

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ABH

This venue no longer exists.

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 Birmingham Conservatoire on Tuesday 18 October.


Sweet are the uses of adversity. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz’s recital at the Conservatoire before, five songs into Britten’s Winter Words, all the lights failed.

It’s just that (after some smart work from the Conservatoire’s concert management), Prégardien and Schnackertz handled the situation with such grace and good humour that everything suddenly felt a little different – as if a bond had been established between audience and performers. The pair gamely performed the rest of their programme by daylight alone, at the mercy of passing clouds and to the accompaniment of metallic creaks from the slowly cooling spotlights. At the end, the audience erupted in cheers.

As well they might. Prégardien’s tenor is a lovely thing; flexible, fluid, with no break in tone quality between registers – it’s elegantly focussed in all areas. At the top, it’s ringing without being strident. At the bottom, where it shades towards a baritone, it’s marvellously oaky. I was reminded of a clarinet, but that’s to overlook Prégardien’s alertness to the text. He characterises lightly, with tone-colours – a quiet, confiding glow at the end of Schubert’s Um Mitternacht, a mix of fragility and robustness in Britten’s At The Railway Station, Upway.

But that’s all rolled into a long, sweet, singing line, deftly moulded to Schnackertz’s crisp, vivid accompaniments, complete with splashes of impressionist colour in Britten’s Midnight on the Great Western and a heroic swagger in Schubert’s Lebensmut. Each song came across as a single, natural whole, and under any circumstances this would have been a deeply rewarding recital. Shame and shame again, though, on whoever let their mobile phone ring mid-concert. No excuse: end of.

Between the Woods and the Water

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We’ve been on our travels again; back to Transylvania. Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Miklos Banffy seemed to shadow us on the way – but other writers too.

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“Up into the middle of it, straight ahead, a vertiginous triangle of steep roofs, spikes, tree-tops and battlemented cliffs rose like a citadel in an illuminated psalter”

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“Back to Sighisoara! Back to Segesvar! Above all, back to Schassburg”

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“The highest of three town walls looped downhill with battlements spaced out between jutting towers…”

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“The level sward outside the west door of the church dropped in green waves of mingled forest and churchyard where the names of weavers, brewers, vintners, carpenters, merchants and pastors were incised on generations of headstones in obsolete German spelling. Under a scurry of clouds and suspended above hills and fields and a twisting riverbed, maintenance and decay were at grips in one of the most captivating graveyards in the world”.

But from our last visit, I remembered this particular family grave. Reading between the lines of the relationships, lives and deaths recorded on this black obelisk, it’s practically a Joseph Roth novella in précis.

Review: Roderick Williams & Susie Allen

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Tardebigge Steeple – photo by Annette Rubery.

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 in Worcestershire on Sunday 28 August.


For thirteen years Jennie McGregor-Smith and her team of helpers have brought some of the world’s finest singers to the Georgian church at Tardebigge, and persuaded them to champion a repertoire that – even if it’s no longer quite as endangered as it was back in 2004 – we still can’t afford to take for granted. The singers have ranged from Nicky Spence to Susan Bickley; the songs have spanned centuries and continents, with a remarkable list of world premieres and commissions. The welcome has been warm, the setting idyllic and the audience devoted.

No more. This was Celebrating English Song’s final concert, and it said everything about this wonderful little series that it turned out to be such a joyous occasion. The performers, Roderick Williams and Susie Allen, had a lot to do with that: Williams’s baritone is just so sunny, so graceful and so effortlessly expressive. He floated the opening lines of Butterworth’s Loveliest of Trees over Allen’s eloquent, understated piano in a single, rapturous arc; bringing out the cycle’s latent drama not with grand gestures, but with endless subtle shadings of the voice.

That set the tone for a concert designed to celebrate as many English-language song composers as possible in a mere two hours. Cycles by Butterworth, Ireland and Ivor Gurney anchored the programme; Quilter, Moeran, Warlock, Vaughan Williams and Britten also featured, as did Ian Venables – who took a bow in person. There was a gentle emphasis on local poets – Housman, Masefield, and Shakespeare – but this was as gloriously rich and diverse an afternoon as we’ve ever spent at Tardebigge, and if Williams’s cheerful attempts to get the audience to sing along in Gurney’s rum-fuelled Captain Stratton’s Fancy didn’t quite pay off, maybe it’s because this has always been more of a tea and cake crowd.

Finzi’s It Was A Lover And His Lass ended the official programme on a note of bright-eyed optimism. But there was one song left to sing: Gurney’s Sleep, a special request from Jennie herself – whose devotion and achievement in giving us these thirteen magical summers fully merited the ovation she received from audience and performers alike.

Review: CBSO and Mirga at the Proms

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RAH Crop
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 BBC Proms on Saturday 27 July.


 

No-one goes to the Proms for the sound quality. Even by London standards, the Royal Albert Hall has a poor acoustic – it’s like hearing a concert from half a block away. For Birmingham concertgoers, it’s impossible not to keep thinking how much better it’d sound in Symphony Hall. No, you go to the Proms for the atmosphere; to be part of one of the biggest classical audiences in the world, whose breathless silence in that vast space says more than any applause. And if you’re an orchestra, you go to the Proms to show what you’re made of.

And it’s hard to think of a better programme with which the CBSO could have introduced Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to a London audience – demonstrating how once again, Birmingham’s picked a winner. Mozart’s Magic Flute overture can sound like a toy in the Albert Hall; but not at this voltage, with trumpets and timpani cutting thrillingly through vibrato-less strings.

Hans Abrahamsen’s song-cycle let me tell you offered a different sort of showcase: Andris Nelsons and the CBSO gave its UK premiere in 2014, and the soloist then – Barbara Hannigan – also sang tonight. Hannigan’s rapt, radiant singing in this modern masterpiece continues to captivate and astonish. What differed was Mirga’s more urgent sense of the piece’s drama, and the subtle, questioning way she clarified its textures: a less romantic approach than Nelsons’s, perhaps, but every bit as affecting. Amidst playing of breathtaking quietness and refinement, Adrian Spillett’s percussion team worked a special magic.

As for Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony – well, it’s probably too soon to start analysing Mirga’s fingerprints. But if it wasn’t, we’d pick out her refusal to play for easy thrills: building and controlling the tension of the musical argument in order to release it with thrilling power where it really counts. Plus, of course, the balletic grace and warm-hearted lilt she brings to a dance-rhythm or a melody – and the way the CBSO players seem to follow, body and soul, wherever she takes them.

The encore – a fizzy little number from Act Two of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty – was one of those joyous, perfectly-timed Proms moments that linger in the memory years later. “See you in Birmingham!” yelled Mirga after the final flourish. We’re already there.

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.