Lunchtime Series: Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass, March 8th.2018

It was some years since I had heard what I remembered as two fine artists, Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass , so I was very much looking forward to hearing them again, this time as a duo. The programme looked to be a fascinating one, Beethoven in his sunniest of moods, Vaughan Williams at his most ecstatic and Prokofiev at his most engaging with his unique blend of the lyrical and the acerbic. In the event though, things did not turn out quite as expected.

It is true that there was much to admire in the performance of the ‘Spring Sonata’. There was a fine drive to the playing. In the outer movements there were many moments when the rhythm was precisely pointed. Performed with similar precision, the wit of the very short scherzo came across quite delightfully. However, this piece is one of those where the title attached to it surely does tell one something about the essence of the music. Much of the Sonata seems to reflect Beethoven at his most radiant, almost relaxed, and to this listener at least the duo were slightly less successful at conveying that aspect of the piece. It wasn’t exactly a hard driven performance but there were a number of moments where one felt that a more relaxed and expansive approach might have brought dividends, particularly in the slow movement. The dynamic range seemed, at least from the middle of the hall, rather narrow, very much in one’s face and the sound was often rich in the bass but slightly lacking in warmth at the top. Neither violin nor piano seemed very much inclined to really sing.

So, when one came to Vaughan Williams’ lark, one wondered what kind of ascent it would have, particularly since one could not see quite how the sense of space created in a concert hall with an orchestra could be replicated with just two instruments in a small intimate hall. Add to that the fact that at the opening of the work, as the musicians sought to establish an appropriate atmosphere, there were constant interruptions from within the audience and for a short time one really feared for the continuation of the concert. One cannot speak too highly about the forbearance of these artists in a very difficult situation as they persevered with the performance. Then, miraculously, the interruptions gradually ceased and, perhaps because of our being reminded that someone had been possibly suffering amongst us, everything really did take wing in a most remarkable manner. This was music making that seemed to touch the divine, in which the lack of an orchestra was as nothing and in which what had gone before was felt as nothing. After the ovation at the end , I thought once again of how extraordinary it is that this genius of a composer is still little known outside the English speaking world. There is a story about Andre Previn conducting the Tallis Fantasia in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic no less. It seems they were so impressed that one musician asked Previn whether the composer had written anything else. Previn , a droll man if ever there is one, is said to have answered “ Only nine symphonies.”

The rest of the concert was pure joy too. The duo clearly relished Prokofiev’s sardonic wit and flair. The pianist had some wonderful moments in the Court Dance which seemed to underline the pomposity of the dancers, the Winter Fairy glistened with icicles and at the end of the selection the Mazurka was played with such verve as to make us all, if the applause was to be believed, wonder at these players’ virtuosity. That was the supposed end to the concert but Matthew Trusler charmingly wondered whether we could spare another three minutes of our time to listen to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smiles’ from ‘Modern Times’. We could and we did. A perfect end.



Lunchtime Series: Jessica Duchen, David Le Page, Viv McLean, February 22nd. 2018

Experience suggests that Juxtaposing language and music successfully in a recital setting can be tricky. I can recall only one instance when I have found it entirely overwhelming. It was in Cambridge in the 80’s when in the first part of the evening two actors read from letters written after WW1 between a mortally ill Lady Elgar and her husband , letters centring on the final flowering of the composer’s genius, in particular on the Piano Quintet, parts of which in the first part interweaved  music with the letters to magical effect. At that time I was hardly aware that Elgar had even written any chamber works, never mind masterpieces of a calibre that rivalled those of Schumann and Brahms. Therefore the effect can be imagined when in the second part this was followed by the complete work being played by the Medici and I think the pianist John Bingham.( If I am right, it is one of those rather remarkable coincidences that there is on the Internet a 2003 Guardian obituary of the pianist written by Jessica Duchen, the author in this recital.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly since then as a format it has struggled to replicate such a memory. Janice Galloway’s reading from her novel Clara about Schumann’s last years set against some of the music was successful but it also highlighted the problem of selecting prose gobbets from a whole, and very fine, novel which will stand side by side with musical moments of genius. Prose needs space to make an effect , music is invariably instant in its effect and I remember even in this concert there were moments when I wished the torrent of words would cease and the music would take over.

Poetry is of course close to music in effect but even here there can be problems of marrying the two forms . At another concert, works by two greats, Benjamin Britten and Ted Hughes, created a car crash in a rendering of some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the former’s succinctly beautiful and at times witty work for solo oboe  was overwhelmed by an actor declaiming at full bore the English poet’s  highly dramatic interpretation of the Latin original.

And then lastly there was a performance of a string version of the Goldberg Variations with pieces of startlingly pretentious poetic prose for each variation, resulting not least in converting a work of considerable length into one which seemed to stretch to eternity. I have never been so close to the feeling of drowning and as I came up for air a colleague of a similar academic background to my own looked me in the face and eloquently raised his eyebrows. I will not repeat what he said.     So, in truth on what is a limited experience and with all these prejudices, I have to admit that I was not really looking forward to this particular Lunchtime event.

How pleasant to find then that I need not have had such dark thoughts. It was soon clear that some considerable thought had gone into choice of content and how to shape it.  It helped that there was here a story to tell and one about which this listener had no knowledge. After all the academics have spoken their wise words, it remains true that, like the children we once were, we continue to be delighted by being told a story. That is why the novel thrives as an art form and in this instance, I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of Jelly d’Aranyi  nor had I heard a performance of the Schumann Violin Concerto.  Hence I came to the material with no baggage and sat at the feet of the author.

And she told her tale well. The excerpts has clearly been chosen to give the audience their bearings and they were told with just enough panache to grip the attention but not too much so that one became acutely aware of listening to a ‘performance’. As far as one could tell from small bits taken out of the narrative structure of the novel , the liveliness of the central character’s personality emerges in the prose. At times the writing seemed blest with that priceless quality, wit. Instantly memorable was the portrait of Yehudi Menuhin’s father, angling to remove d’Aranyi as a competitor for the first performance. How moving also was the simplicity with which the audience was informed  of the death at the Somme of the violinist’s possible suitor. Here one entered the world of so many women in the 20’s and 30’s who were attached to men in the officer class, perhaps most poignantly created in Vera  Brittain’s Testament of Youth , she who lost fiancée, brother and two other male friends in the conflict .

Then, of course, there was the background of what was happening in Central Europe in the early 30’s. Here the music for me took over since in the time allowed the Nazis’ ludicrous belief that a lost Schumann Violin Concerto would help plug the gap left by their attempt to remove Mendelssohn from the repertoire was only lightly sketched. I learned that Ravel’s Tzigane was written for d’Aranyi and  listening to Le Page’s and McLean’s powerful performance the strain of melancholy to be found in Gypsy music poignantly brought to my mind at least that it was not only the Jews who were victims of the Final Solution. Previous to that a sizzling performance of Bartok’s Rumanian Dances, besides pointing to d’Aranyi’s close friendship with the composer, had underpinned the vitality of the musical culture from which she came and also of her own personality. At other instances the role of the music seemed primarily to give a sense of the range of her acquaintances. Certainly the contrast between Tzigane and Elgar’s Salut d’ amour made that point!

Lastly, the performance of the melody of the Ghost Variations at the beginning and the end of the recital effectively and movingly gave a frame to the story, though not surprisingly the use of that melody in the concerto, particularly when played by violin and piano, could not quite convince that one had been witnessing a re-birth of the masterpiece so much wished for by Goebbels . Perhaps, it was better thus in that it reminded one how futile was the suppression of  Mendelssohn’s genius, a genius nowhere more in evidence than in his Violin Concerto.

So, it was an intriguing event, intriguing enough for me to put down a tenner for the novel.



I noticed that at the bottom of the programme appeared the following : For a review of the festival and other classical music events in Leicestershire please go to

Perhaps the empty gap that followed was evidence of the spirit world recognising a sceptic and attempting to impose its own form of censorship.




The Lunchtime Series: Heath Quartet, 8th February,2018

The Heath Quartet brought to Leicester a reputation of having become in the last few years one of the most formidable quartets on the present day music scene, a reputation which this concert amply justified. I was not aware that they had adopted what, to judge by other visiting quartets over the last few seasons, seems to have become something of a fashion, that of the instrumentalists playing standing, with the exception, of course, of the cellist. Whatever one’s views of that, and like most decisions to do with the music sometimes there are losses as well as gains, one thing is certain. It highlights the qualities of the individual players of the ensemble and that in some cases in recent years has not been entirely to the advantage of the quartet.

It was emphatically not the case here, though. One could hear right from the beginning of the first work ,Haydn’s Op 74,No1 just why the Heath had acquired such a formidable reputation. Each player contributed to a wonderfully rich corporate tone and, no doubt as a direct result of their standing up, one could hear the parts and the individual musicianship with a sometimes startling clarity. This was clearly not courtly Haydn but a great questing composer always looking for ways in which to engage an audience’s attention and to disconcert by not always fulfilling classical expectation.

The quartet’s interpretation made no bones about this. From the opening movement there seemed to be a determination to make clear this was music pushing classical good manners to the limit. The range of dynamics was at times wide. The climaxes were very weighty indeed, some of the pianissimos quite gorgeous. The Andantino sang to fine lyrical effect and in the Minuet it was very clear that this was music for London and not the Esterhazy court. The energy with which the finale was dispatched was such that it reminded one just how close sometimes Haydn comes to his awkward protégée Beethoven. Again, the clarity which was brought about by the space between the players meant that the composer’s energy and inventiveness emerged into the brightest of lights.

So, all in all this was splendidly bold Haydn playing. However, was it perhaps rather too bold, I wondered? After all, Haydn’s wit comes from what seems to me to be basically an urbane, good humoured personality. If I want to be cheered, I go to Haydn’s London symphonies. He loved entertaining his London audience and this comes through on every page of those works but in his expansion of musical possibilities he makes sure he takes that audience with him. In this instance, I found the playing at times a touch too much in your face, a trifle too emphatic. Perhaps, I thought it was because of the strength of sound arising from the players standing up and I have to say that I rather feared what that might do to the second work on offer , Ravel’s String Quartet, which I imagined could well wilt having such a searchlight focussed upon it.

One need not have worried. This was one of the finest performances I have heard of this fascinating work, so much in some ways the essence of Gallic sensibility. Here the dynamic levels seemed entirely appropriate but with the added bonus that the building blocks of Ravel’s refined musical personality, perhaps again because of the physical separateness of the players, emerged with a clarity and at times a drama such as I cannot remember hearing so fully before in this work. Also present quite thrillingly were the unsettling undercurrents in the music, which were time and again memorably realised. In the slow movement the sounds created suggested to me nothing so much as a state in which the nerve ends are at full stretch. This music as played here went into a really rather weird and disturbing world. It was interesting to read in the programme that a Conservatoire Professor found the first movement ‘painful’ . Perhaps he was more right than he knew! Certainly of a piece was the way the Quartet played the final movement, here revealing just how dramatic and, to refer to Ravel’s instructions Vif et agité ,  how disconcerting the music can sound when played as it was here.

Altogether, a stimulating and challenging concert, indeed.




The Philharmonia- Evgeni Bozhanov, Juraj Valcuha, February 7th.2017

Over the past months, a number of reviews of the Philharmonia concerts at the Royal Festival Hall have suggested an orchestra in the peak of condition. Therefore, whatever the merits of this or the other interpretation, I had expected something rather special in the playing when they came visiting to Leicester this time. Even so, in the event I was not fully prepared for what I heard from them under the Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha, making a welcome return to Leicester. They began with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta ,long a favourite work of mine when I need cheering up, but hitherto never heard by me in a concert hall.

Well, expectations were more than fully realised. From the off the cello section dug into the sensuous opening theme with astonishing gipsy fire and so it continued. The woodwind sparkled , piccolo( Keith Bragg), flute (Samuel Coles) oboe (Tom Bloomfield) all had their moments in the sun. However, it was Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) who stole the limelight with passages which invited the player to sound as if it all was being played on the hoof and not from a score. Here and elsewhere  the conductor one guessed had a crucial role in encouraging these great instrumentalists to play as soloists, whilst keeping everything around them together. Decades ago, that was one of the things that marked out the great Sir Thomas Beecham from so many of his contemporaries and which gave as I remember all too well his performances such a sense of spontaneity . Of course, you need brilliant players to do that and the present day Philharmonia certainly has them. For instance, one listened with gasping admiration at the whole string section’s precision, unanimity and fullness  of tone, maintained sometimes at speeds which in any other context would have been thought bordering on the reckless.  It was simply breathtaking.

Also, having been in the RFH recently, the performance highlighted the wonderful acoustic of the DMH, rich yet also precise, something which the London concert hall struggles to deliver. All of this left me wondering why such a joyous work is not played more often. Perhaps it is thought too much of challenge, certainly as a first work in a programme. Also, perhaps it does become ever so slightly repetitive in the middle. However, the last few exhilarating pages on this occasion conclusively blew such thoughts away.

After the interval we had more from the same Hungarian stable, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, first performed in 1944, a year before his death. In the 1950’s this was the first ‘modern’ work I heard in the concert hall, with this orchestra, then less than a decade old and conducted by the then idol of London, Herbert von Karajan. At that time in my far distant youth I had heard mostly music by long dead Germans. I knew vaguely that there were still people alive writing music in the here and now but from hearsay they were writing stuff any sane person would not wish to listen to. Bartok’s name figured very prominently in that group so I was astonished to find that in this work at least it was clearly possible that modern composers were worth listening to.  As is the way of the world it was, of course , derided by a few who saw it as evidence of the composer’s retreat from modernism . Now ,of course, it is a masterpiece(!) and indeed it is, and can be seen in its sardonic wit, its dramatic changes of mood, in the range of its sonic world, and in  its  roots in folk music as quintessentially Bartok.

In this instance, it was given a performance which was masterly in managing those rapid shifts in mood. Some years ago, on his debut in Leicester, I thought Juraj Valcuha clearly a fine musician but on that occasion perhaps lacking that something special which really rivets the attention. That was certainly not the case here. This seemed music which he lived, relishing detail upon detail, whilst in no way losing the impetus to keep the work together. It can so easily become a series of moments which don’t quite coalesce but here time and again the fire at the centre of the work was memorably conveyed.

In the middle of this eastern European sandwich was Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, featuring a pianist new to Leicester, the Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov. His was a performance which had some fine qualities. Playing the DMH’s Fazioli seemed to enable him to present many features of the work with a clarity which often surprised this listener. Whereas perhaps a Steinway often bestows a bloom on a series of notes, here it was quite startling and refreshing at times the way even in fast passages each note had its own shape. This gave the performance almost a Mozartian poise which often seemed appropriate to the music.

However, there were losses as well. I think I remember Paul Lewis saying that, because it was such a bridge between the 18th. and 19c., this concerto presented for the interpreter the greatest problems of any of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. The programme pointed out that Beethoven had moved on from the forte piano to a more powerful instrument and that the concerto reflects its range. It was perhaps the forward looking features of the music that were not reflected fully in some moments of this performance. This was felt particularly in the lyrical slow movement which could have had more of a romantic richness and bloom.  Though there were cool beauties on the way, the warmth tended to come from the orchestral accompaniment. It might have been interesting to hear the performance on the RFH’s Steinway the following day to gauge how much, if any, of a difference it made to the interpretation. One can forget that, unless they are very wealthy and /or slightly dotty like the great 20c. Italian pianist Michelangeli  who allegedly travelled with four pianos, pianists unlike other instrumentalists very often have to play on unfamiliar instruments. Whatever, there was more than enough in this performance to look forward to hearing this artist again.


Lunchtime Series- James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, January 25th.2018

In a world which through the invention of the social media has made hype or, as the 18c described it , puff ever more widespread, in which celebrity can be achieved at least for a moment by the truly witless and untalented , it is rather disconcerting to find that you feel yourself in danger of running out of superlatives. It makes one pause to wonder whether one has caught the contagion and that musicians only have to apply a finger to a key board, a bow to a string or for a wind instrument to be blown or a mouth to be opened for one to go weak at the knees. Such is my present dilemma in the regard the ongoing series of Lunchtime Concerts which have seemed to me with hardly an exception to be the best in my memory. I am, however, buoyed up by remembering a number of very wise people back in September thinking it likely to be so and that all that is happening is that for once a prophecy is actually fulfilling itself.

Certainly the recital given by James Gilchrist and Anna Tillbrook never looked on paper likely to break the pattern, nor did it in actuality. In what is perhaps the most demanding of musical forms, in which in the most intense manner it is demanded of both artists that they show pinpoint response not only to the note but also to the word, this was an exemplary lesson in what can be achieved in the form. The singer’s diction was clear so every word and phrase could be savoured ,though full marks to the organisation for providing the audience with texts just in case. James Gilchrist’s approach to the form is so different to my memories of the few recitals I attended in my youth when the singer came on the platform in evening dress, stood magisterially by the piano and at attention delivered the goods. More often now the singer both in voice and body tries to present the inherent drama which is so often present in the best of the genre. Occasionally this can be overdone and can distract from the music , but here it was perfectly gauged so that the audience could feel itself drawn into the centre of the musical journey inherent in all three works featured.

Of course, much more than dramatic gesture is required to keep the attention. The quality of the voice and of the piano playing is paramount and in that respect at times this recital touched the sublime. James Gilchrist has a voice of outstanding purity and power with a capacity to maintain quality through a great range of dynamics. He also clearly responds to the possibilities of a poetic text with great insight. Anna Tillbrook would appear to have the same capacity if one is to judge from the way the piano sound time and again created the world of the words. For instance, it was she ( and of the course Britten)  who created quite magically at the very opening of the concert, as  Canticle 1 My Beloved is Mine began, the cool rippling effect of pebbles in a pure stream by which the poet  creates  the quality of his love.

There was so much to note in the recital. It occurred to me that this was possibly the first time that I had been at a concert devoted entirely to British Song . Better late than never. There are music settings of poetry that have emerged in the last hundred or so year which for the first time in two centuries or more  musically match the great Purcell.  I remember this singer some years ago in this gallery giving a great  performance of Britten’s song  cycle Winter Words and I have long been convinced that there has never been a greater setter of words to music than this composer anywhere or at anytime. This was shown in the Canticle sung here which created in seven minutes a range of feeling worthy of a whole opera.

However, there is much else in the musical renaissance of the last century and in one hour this recital managed to suggest that.  Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel’ perhaps does not quite feel as a song cycle a complete structure like Wintereisse but it is so wonderfully and stoically British! There’s  little of what seems to me sometimes the rather wearisome breast beating so beloved of some of the Romantic German poets which  Schubert often managed to convert into musical gold. Perhaps this refusal  to collapse in a heap  was made more obvious by having a tenor singing rather than a darker baritone. And yet the performance here did indeed remind one very powerfully  of the passing of time, most notably in Whither must I wander in which the sense of times gone by was delivered with almost unbearable poignancy, worthy of Wordsworth’s great poem The Ruined Cottage. Has there ever been a greater melody written?

And what of the meat in the sandwich, only the second performance of Jonathan Dove’s new song cycle Under Alter’d Skies set to seven poems from Tennyson’s huge In Memoriam , a response to the early death of a close friend ? Well, I first heard songs by this composer in last year’s Series of Lunchtime Concerts and was mightily impressed. That is even more so now after buying Kitty Whately’s CD of his songs for mezzo soprano and having heard this work. Here is a composer with an instinctive feel for words, able to work within a largely tonal pallet and yet create a very definite musical voice. Time and again both in the voice and in the piano he seemed here to hit the mark in putting the words to music, searching out in particular the subtle changes of mood unerringly. Also, the selection of the poems did seem to create the turmoil of the heart gradually coming to terms with grief so the work had shape.  First hearing suggests it most certainly deserves to be heard widely.  Hopefully it will be recorded by these artists and they will return again soon with another such thought provoking and finely performed concert.

Lunchtime Series: Laura van der Heijden, Petr Limonov -January11th. 2018

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Well, when it comes to the two Lunchtime concerts that straddled the change of year from 2017 to 2018, it would appear that it can. In December we welcomed the outstanding winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing with his siblings in the Kanneh-Mason Trio. In January partnered by the pianist Petr Limonov came another cellist, Laura van der Heijden , the English born daughter of Dutch and Swiss parents and when 15 years of age the 2012 winner of the competition. The former for very good reasons has loomed large in the classical music world over the last year, the latter had until this concert escaped at least my attention. The reason was not hard to find in the programme. She has clearly, and no doubt very wisely, combined an education with a quietly burgeoning concert career. However, be in no doubt that on the evidence of this concert she belongs to what is becoming a royal line of native cellists who have been revealed by the BBC competition, two of whom ,Natalie Clein who won in 1994 and Guy Johnston in 2000, are very well known in Leicester.  In this concert she and Petr Limonov showed themselves both to be outstanding young artists.

As the music making proceeded one thing began to emerge which was not obvious before the recital. With the exception of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata I knew none of the works being performed but, having heard some of Schnittke’s and Webern’s other compositions, thought that the audience might be in for a testing hour. In fact, it emerged as a beautifully designed concert ,which in itself suggested the high musical intelligence of the designers. We were introduced to Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style ,humorous and ever alert to undermine musical expectations, expectations which were further confounded in Webern’s early Two Pieces for Cello and Piano which almost sounded like Elgar! This was followed by the ‘real’ Webern ,Op 11, which came across perhaps as the still centre of  the concert, where musical statement was stripped down to its barest essentials. Then we were shifted back in a piece by Lyadov to the kind of short work for cello late 19c. Romantic composers could toss off in their sleep, before finally being pitched into Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata Op.119 ‘s  teeming world of invention, in which the iconoclastic jostles with the romantic. It was a constantly intriguing journey. However, whilst it worked as part of a narrative musical pattern, I did wonder whether  we had in the context quite enough time to get fully attuned to Webern’s ultra cryptic utterances. In this setting did it perhaps rather invite a response of ‘So what?’, I wondered. In 2016 a performance in the Museum of music of similar aims if rather greater length, a quartet by the legendary contemporary composer Kurtag,  certainly did not invite such a response, love it or hate it.

As to the performances given by this duo, perhaps one might concentrate on the final work and for a change start by handing a bouquet to the pianist. There is sometimes an inclination to think that the pianist in a cello sonata is essentially an accompanist. Indeed, I have a CD of the Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata  issued by a major recording company not so many years ago in which the cover of the  CD is filled by a picture of the cellist with the name of the pianist consigned to the bottom corner, and this in a work written by one of the greatest pianists of all time who obviously had every intention of giving equal if not greater attention to the instrument. The same might apply to the Prokofiev Sonata written by another Russian virtuoso pianist.  To say that Petr Limonov rose to the challenge is an understatement. In the third movement there was a fine swagger to a passage that reminded one of such things as the March from the Love for Three Oranges. Throughout, the typically staccato passages in the work were delivered with a thrilling accuracy, edge and crispness. Yet what most impressed in this context were two other things , firstly the amount of shimmering crystalline sound conjured from the piano at its quieter moments and secondly that even with the piano lid fully up he never drowned the cello. That does occasionally happen when even the most experienced of artists play in this intimate space for the first time.

Not that one felt this too likely to happen to this cellist. Laura van der Heijden’s range of expressive tone and dynamics seemed to me simply breathtaking . In the early Webern and in the Lyadov the cello sang with a thrilling purity. This was warmth without any blowsiness and in the parts of the sonata where Prokofiev’s rich lyricism was to the fore we were back in the world of the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Yet she could also find so many other colours in the cello, astringency at times in the Schnittke and throughout where necessary a light and nimble fingering which made the cello sound almost skittish and dance- like.  This was cello playing worthy of being called aristocratic so entirely musical was it.

One last point. The hour and particularly the performance of the Prokofiev raised in my mind yet again the nature of musical genius. Long ago in my youth the world of music, led of course by academe, worshipped on the altar of strict sonata form and this composer was thought far too prolix for his own good. Yet, constantly and increasingly I have found pleasure and excitement in music which teems with ideas and colour even if, or perhaps because, it runs the very evident risk of spinning out of control. In another art form which I know rather more about that is one of the things that makes Shakespeare what he is. The great Dryden at the end of the 17thcentury answered the wise men of his time, who wished that  the dramatist had been born in their more polite, ordered and classical age, by simply stating that Shakespeare is the greatest of all dramatists because the whole world is in his plays. Perhaps after all we should trust the audience rather more as to what is worth listening to! Certainly this Duo produced a wonderfully invigorating hour’s entertainment and convinced me that at least I was right to follow my inclinations in regard Sergey Prokofiev.  I really do hope we shall hear these two fine musicians again soon in another programme as thought- provoking as this one.





The fine tenor James Gilchrist with pianist Anna Tilbrook returns at the next Lunchtime concert at 1.00 p.m on January 25th with a mouth- watering  programme of English song. Not to be missed.

The Lunchtime Series: The Kanneh-Mason Trio, December 14th. 2017

It occurred to me that the two December professional concerts in Leicester, one at DMH and one at the Museum, could have together been given the title’ The times they are a’changin.’ In the first, we had the young woman conductor Elim Chan directing a superb Philharmonia Concert. In the second three even younger musicians, all from the Kanneh-Mason family of Nottingham and playing as the Kanneh- Mason Piano Trio, gave truly astonishing performances of Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.1 No.3 and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2.

Classical music has a long history of prodigies, occasionally two or more from the same family. However, as the sell out audience at the Museum bore witness to , never to the best of my knowledge has the classical music scene witnessed a more extraordinary story than the one which emerged after Sheku Kanneh- Mason won the 2016  BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and thus became the first black person to do so.  There followed a BBC documentary about his family  and their passion for classical music, in which it became clear that, though Sheku clearly seemed already capable of having a career on the international stage,  there were other major talents in the family, notably his elder sister, the pianist Isata,  and his elder brother, violinist Braimah, who together with Sheku constituted the Trio.

In a way then one should not have been surprised at the quality of the playing. Of course, the cello playing was a given but one of the finer things about these performances was that it was in perfect accord with the other two players. Then I remembered that one, the pianist Isata, had, as a very young and diminutive girl who at the time was almost dwarfed by the Steinway she was playing,  performed in the Museum a decade ago as one of four finalists of a young  pianist’s Competition held in Uppingham.  I remembered that , whilst three were obviously very good for their age, no such allowances needed to be made for her and afterwards a number in the audience prophesied great things. They were right. She is now, together with her equally talented violinist brother, at the Royal Academy of Music.

No surprise then that we were listening to individual music making of a high order. That said ,though, there was cause for surprise, not to say amazement. Perhaps it was down to long family bonding but the balance, the refinement of the sound, combined above all else with a sense of youthful pleasure at making music resulted in a concert which was very much something else. As I get older, I find that this precious quality found in very talented young performers is worth every bit as much as the supposed wisdom which comes with age. Indeed, increasingly I wonder whether in middle age some fine artists, so concerned have they become to deliver everything in the music, find it difficult to preserve the quality so vital in live performance, a sense of the simple spontaneous joy at the power of great music.

That joy was here very evident from the beginning of the Beethoven. One was immediately struck at times by the liquid tone of the piano and the sense of balance with the other two players. Not that the energy of much of this music was not thrillingly conveyed but what I particularly admired was the way it was being played as early and not middle Beethoven.  Here the performance was at times slightly at odds with the occasional programme note. For instance, in the latter the third movement was described as music which was ‘ tense and edgy’. What was conveyed in this performance was the sheer  high spirits of the music, very much the composer still under the influence of Haydn. I am all for being reminded that the young and even at times the old Beethoven could be as witty and as humorous as his mentor. Again in the last movement the Trio I felt found more variation of dynamics ,of mood, of light and shade than  the movement’s  ‘blunt energy’ referred to in the programme. Conversely , the second theme as played here emerged as rather more than a ‘relaxed interlude’, so delightful was the playing.  However, that said, the eruption towards the end of the movement was played with  an explosive force which did indeed look forward to revolutionary times.

So, it was no surprise that the Trio should prove able to handle the enormous range  of utterance within the  Shostakovich Trio. Here the cello was to the forefront more often and one could see in such moments as the terrifyingly weird cello sound at the opening of the piece and the part the instrument plays in the searing climax towards the end of the last movement just why firstly  Sheku  should have chosen  a Shostakovich  concerto for the BBC final and secondly why he should have won the competition. For a moment one wondered whether the ghost of Rostropovich was amongst us.

However, the work is not a concerto for cello. It covers a huge range of feeling but so often it is music that is raw on the nerves and the composer never flinches from leaving each instrumentalist fearsomely exposed at times. Suffice to say that the composer’s intentions were fearlessly communicated and this listener’s nerves at least were duly shredded. The bitter, sardonic moments in the score were conveyed with cracking force but as impressive was how in the third movement, for instance, the extended construction of the poignant passacaglia was effortlessly maintained. How interesting that Shostakovich and Britten, arguably the two greatest composers of the mid 20c. and who sometime after the composition of this work became close friends, should both have been drawn to this form quite separately.

After a prolonged ovation from the audience, these superbly talented young artists played as an encore  Coleridge-Taylor’s eloquently simple setting of ‘Deep River’, just to remind us perhaps that there has been a past and hopefully will be an expanding future for black classical musicians.

The Philharmonia- Simon Trpceski, Elim Chan. December 2nd 2017

Once it was quite common to hear conductors when being interviewed referring to the ‘gentlemen of the orchestra’ , the reason being that half the human race was denied work in symphony orchestras for a number of what appeared even then to be utterly phony reasons. For instance, it was declared that a string section with women in it would not have the same power as one with only men! This kind of musical misogyny was I gather still present until comparatively recently in such antediluvian organisations as the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Philharmonia, however, did appoint women musicians quite early on, in the late 50’s or early 60’s. However, apparently all was not entirely sweetness and light. I remember my future wife pointing out to me at one concert that a very attractive young woman with flaming red hair had joined the string section since we had last heard the orchestra. Many years later I read in a history of the orchestra that about this time a new young woman string player in the orchestra had caught the eye of the aged but sometimes manic Klemperer. Whether it was the player my wife had noted history does not tell, though there were few if any others in the orchestra to choose from who quite fitted the anecdote. Whatever, it appears that the besotted conductor apparently demanded during one Edinburgh Festival that , instead of being booked into the best hotel in the city, he should be given a room in the hostel where the orchestra was billeted, backing up his demand with a threat to cancel the concerts if he didn’t get his way. Happily it seems he was eventually pacified and he agreed to remain where he had been put, in his hotel. Not surprisingly then in such a world the further step, that of a woman actually conducting a symphony orchestra, was thought the stuff of madness and so it has largely remained until quite recently. Perhaps only in the 21c has it been generally accepted that gender has nothing to do with the ability to flourish a baton effectively.

Such thoughts occurred when the ever so young looking and petite Elim Chan, in 2014 the first female winner of the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and here a late substitute for the indisposed Urbanski ,literally ran onto the stage. It was perhaps only natural to wonder whether she would hack it when faced by this, one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Well, hack it she did. From the very first downbeat, it was clear that here was someone who had very definite ideas about how things should go and  as importantly was able to get an orchestra to be absolutely with her on the musical journey. In Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture with eloquent hand movements she shaped everything with great clarity and much detail which sometimes is passed by here emerged into the light. There was perhaps sometimes a price to be paid in that occasionally the onward narrative and passionate impetus of the work was slightly lost in the desire to reveal the numerous beauties of the score on the way. However, refinement is on balance to be preferred to crash and bash and it was clear that here was a musician to be reckoned with.

Next she proved herself to be a sympathetic accompanist to what some might have thought a red blooded, others a brash performance of the same composer’s first Piano Concerto given by the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski. I inclined to the first viewpoint. What I found particularly interesting and compelling was how different instruments can produce such different outcomes even in the most well known music. Here the pianist elected to play the DMH’s Fazioli , a piano lighter in sound than that produced by the ubiquitous heavyweight Steinways so popular on the circuit. In the past there have been times when the Fazioli has sounded too lightweight for the big 19c heavyweight concertos.  Here ,though, the pianist managed to ride the orchestra without trouble and and there were many compensations arising out of the piano’s clear crystalline tone . One was reminded how refreshing ,exhilarating  and unportentous this concerto can sound , absolutely bursting as it is with fresh ideas. There are enough of these in the first movement alone for a whole work. Also I had forgotten , besides the brilliance and the virtuosity, how many  magical moments there are and not just for the solo instrument. As ever the orchestra’s fine principal flautist Samuel Coles featured not just in this work but throughout the evening. There was, it is true, a touch of the showman about Trpceski but why not? I found his infectious enthusiasm to be in the end irresistible, particularly in such moments as the great melody at the end of the third movement which, played as it was here with such passion by both pianist and orchestra, made for a memorable climax to the work.

Finally, on this Russian/ Shakespearean journey we were given excerpts from Prokofiev’s wonderful music for the Ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Here the conductor’s relish for detail in the scoring really paid off. Rarely have I been so aware of the marvels of this work’s orchestration. The weight of the orchestral sound, characteristically underpinned by bass brass, was astonishing. The death of Tybalt was quite shattering, as in a different way was the tenderness the conductor coaxed from the orchestra in the portrait of Juliet as a young girl and the poignant reprise for a moment in Juliet’s Funeral of the love music. This was a fine performance indeed, underlined by the orchestra, which had been on top form throughout, insisting that the conductor take a bow on her own. How well had she deserved it.

Lunchtime Series: Haffner Wind Ensemble- 30th November 2017

It was good to welcome back the Haffner Wind Ensemble. Even if, unless my memory is failing, it has been some time since this particular ensemble has played here, of course the individual members of the quintet are well known in this part of the world and hence were received as old friends. They have long ago established reputations as superb artists of the very first rank so one expected an hour’s superb playing in a programme both innovative and compelling. And that is what we got. I knew none of the works but each was clearly worth bringing into the light, which in such programmes is by no means always the case.

Firstly, the transcription for woodwind of Beethoven’s String Quintet Op.4, though Nicholas Daniel’s description of its tortuous history I am afraid lost me, in the event was recognisably by the Master’s hand, though at times it seemed derived much from Mozart or Haydn. None the worse for that. In particular one delighted at the crystal clarity of the ensemble’s playing in the outer movements, fully bringing out the composer’s wit. In the deification process that went on in the 19c the puckish Beethoven took a back seat, perhaps rather like Shakespeare’s rude humour becoming almost an embarrassment and resulting in the  expunging of such things as the Porter’s scene in ‘Macbeth’. It was splendid to be reminded just how much laughter was part of the composer’s palette.  Conversely the lovely flute playing in the andante and the drive of the third movement brought into focus a young composer intent on making a splash.

Secondly came Barber’s Summer Music. Barber is a composer clearly being re-evaluated as the avant garde fades into history. Glyndebourne is producing his opera ‘Vanessa ‘ next year and his Violin Concerto is close to becoming a repertory piece. His music seems to me at its best to tap into a rich lyrical seam such as is to be found in the famous vocal setting of Knoxville 1915 where nostalgia for childhood and past times creates in the music an overwhelmingly powerful effect. Summer Music seemed very much in the same vein and vividly portrayed at times the somnolence of a warm summer’s day and the feeling of well being. Something to be savoured, I feel.

Lastl,y we had 15 minutes of a witty set of variations by the 20c. French pianist and composer Jean-Michel Damase, very much in the tradition of music by the composers who called themselves Les Six. Some time ago I heard a concert devoted entirely to French 20c. musical wit and naughtiness and by the end of it felt it had long outstayed its welcome. Not so here. Played with huge panache it was a delightful and perfectly judged end to the concert. Once again the articulation and verve of the playing at times lifted one out of one’s seat.

Speaking of which, sitting as I do in the middle of the Gallery, at times I mildly cursed myself that I had forgotten the power and pungency of a wind ensemble sound in an intimate space and how astringent and piercing in climaxes the combined trebles of flute, oboe and clarinet could  sound close to. It only really mattered in the Barber where at times I had to force myself to imagine the languid atmosphere of the summer’s day referred to in the programme. Next time when the winds come I shall make a point of retreating to the back where I was told distance did indeed lend enchantment!

Lunchtime Series: Trio Dali, 16th November 2017

The debut in Leicester of this high flying Trio almost didn’t happen. At the last moment their pianist fell ill but, as their violinist Jack Liebeck told the audience, they really did want to fulfil the engagement and, as their luck and our luck would have it, they managed to sign up for the trip the distinguished pianist Daniel Grimwood . Twenty four hours later, and ,we were assured, after intensive rehearsal, the newly constituted trio walked onto the platform of the New Walk Museum to perform.

And what performances they gave! I am fully persuaded that there are occasions when concerts given under less than ideal conditions result in performances that thrill in a way that those which are more considered and matured do not quite. Perhaps the adrenalin takes over. Whatever, these performances certainly did thrill this listener. Jack Liebeck is, of course, an established international soloist who has appeared in the city before, but the cellist Christian–Pierre La Marca was completely new to me and the pianist only known by reputation. Exploration of the internet suggests that that had been very much my loss and what happened in this concert re-inforced that feeling . Barely a moment went by without the trio as a whole or one or other of the ensemble  causing one to catch one’s breath with delight.

In the opening work , Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 43, there was perhaps some settling down. At times in live performance piano trios can create considerable problems of balance and here there were moments when the piano tended to over lay the two string instruments. However, the way in which from the beginning the latter so naturally leant into the phrases suggested real class. The opening movement of this joyous work had a great lift and bounce, the sudden change from the lyricism of the opening of the second movement into the dramatic  was memorable and the wit of the last movement was brilliantly effected. By this time it was as if the three had been playing together for years. Of all the great composers Haydn can be relied upon to deliver the feel good factor and that is exactly what was communicated here.

And then came Dvorak’s Dumky Piano Trio which for me has special memories. Decades ago there was a very moving serial on TV which charted the lives and deaths of a Jewish family during the Nazi period and in which the pervading accompanying music was a cello tune of infinite sadness. At the time I thought it to be music of Jewish origin.

Then, sometime later I heard this Trio for the first time and in the fourth movement immediately recognised where the tune came from. Of course, by that time the associations already formed were not to be dismissed from the mind and perhaps they shouldn’t be. The fact that the dumka is of Ukrainian origin possibly makes little difference. The choice of this music for the subject matter of the serial could be argued to be absolutely apt. Is it fanciful to feel in the work at times a sense of an Eastern European culture and its music soon to be lost? After all throughout Europe at this time there was an urgent recording of folk music for posterity before it disappeared for ever. In this work it is made all the more poignant by the way, together with many moments of elegiac sadness,  the joy and the vitality of that culture is so vividly communicated as well.

The work is also something of a riposte to the assumption that an episodic structure in music is inferior to that which displays symphonic argument. This performance made clear that the range of feeling, the subtlety of so much of the music in its colouring and in its dramatic contrasts, together with the sheer magic of this composer’s melodic gifts , all serve to keep the work constantly afloat and stamp it as one the greatest  in the chamber music repertoire. Indeed, during the performance I effectively gave up scribbling because I found myself literally overwhelmed by the felicities that I was noticing on the way. In the second movement, for instance, the cello melody of infinite poignancy was played to aching effect, the piano playing created at times a crystalline silver bell- like quality in the treble, the violin danced its way wonderfully through the polka section before all three combined to create a sound world of breathtaking beauty as the quiet of the opening returned. To this listener the exquisiteness of the sound produced almost stopped time in its tracks for an instance. After that I very wisely stuffed my pen into my pocket and surrendered utterly to the music. Words in this instance could simply not do justice to either the music or the playing, so why try, I thought.