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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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.

 

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.