Bardi Symphony Orchestra- Chiche, Johnston,Poster, Efland

As readers of this diary are no doubt aware, its principal aim is to ensure that the many eminent professional musicians who play in the city receive some acknowledgement of their efforts. On a personal level, as a consequence, since the diarist travels regularly to musical events in the other Midland cities and London , Leicester’s non- professional  music making scene has had to be rigorously ignored if one was not to suffer from overkill. So,when I was attracted to the prospect of hearing on a Sunday afternoon a Beethoven concerto that I had never heard in the concert hall, it was the first time for several years that I had been to a concert of a non- professional  orchestra and there was no thought about it being an entry in the diary. It was simply an opportunity to hear Marina Chiche, Guy Johnston and Tom Poster, three stalwarts of the Leicester Chamber Music scene, in an unfamiliar setting.

And it has to be said that that alone made the outing well worthwhile. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is very much the Cinderella of his concertos and certainly it scales no heights. However, a country walk in the lowlands has its own delights and there are certainly many of those to be found in this work. I can dimly remember at university hearing a recording and finding myself humming the last movement theme for weeks afterwards. It is truly a Sunday afternoon occasion in which the unaffected pleasure of the making of music is the foremost aim and this came across here even in a concert hall setting. Leicester knows what fine musicians these artists are but what emerged in spades was the sheer delight they were feeling during this presumably rare opportunity to perform this music in public. Violinist and pianist spent most o their time with smiles on their faces. Guy Johnston looked a little more solemn but then he had the most taxing moments in the piece to play! With a spry accompaniment, the performance did justice to the work and I thought I had been right to come.

Indeed, after that and with the best will in the world, the prospect of a non- professional orchestra attempting to cope with Strauss’ heroic life made an alternative  prospect of early tea and scones quite beguiling. In particular, past experience had suggested such orchestras were usually strongest in the wind sections and least reliable in the strings. That this, if true, would be a severe problem in a work like Ein Heldenleben was obvious.

Well, I stayed and my fears could not have been more groundless. From the very first bars my face must have been a picture, with mouth wide open and eyes just about to pop out my head. Where was this sound coming from, this richly lustrous and splendidly vigorous attack? I grew up only knowing the dry acoustic of the original Royal Festival Hall and, with the exception of the Philharmonia, my memory suggests London orchestras of that time struggled to produce the sort of string sound one was listening to here in 2018 coming from a non- professional orchestra.

So within a few minutes I had switched from cautious optimism that most things would be   in place to the way one goes that extra distance and engages with the interpretative qualities of the performance. These seemed to me to be considerable. The work’s range of feeling was all there. It helped of course that the leader was Adam Summerhayes who was simply superb in what amounts to a mini violin concerto depicting the centre of the composer’s life ,his handful of a wife , a subject Strauss returned to in one or two other major works.  However, the summation of that episode is one of the most glorious themes Strauss ever wrote and it needs to burgeon into gold. This is exactly  what it did here, to glorious and moving effect. Conversely, Strauss’ skewering of the Beckmessers was delivered with piercing sound from woodwind and brass. True, there were the occasional moments when the wash of sound blurred but overall the performance did full justice to the outrageous vigour of Strauss’ vision. I have not heard Claus Efland conduct for a long time. He is clearly a conductor capable of galvanising players to go where his interpretation of work guides him. It resulted in a performance which yielded so much more than simple relieved satisfaction at an orchestra  having got through a complex piece of music without a train crash!

Lastly, I could not but compare this tone poem with Liszt’s Les Preludes performed last week in the DMH, see the previous entry to the Diary. In my opinion that music was bombast to the nth degree. During my lifetime that has been all too often the sniffy response to Ein Heldenleben, often from worthy people who think that the concert hall should be nearer to a church than a place of entertainment. Hopefully we can now see what a wonderfully vital work it is, written by one of the greatest masters of the orchestra there has ever been. In this performance I found myself prey to the full gamut of feelings about what life can be and no-one, but no-one, should be sniffing at that.

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The Philharmonia- Anush Hovhannisyan,Stuart Jackson , Christoph Altstaedt, May 8th 2018

In many ways it has been an outstanding season for the Philharmonia Residency with several concerts which have been truly memorable. Indeed, the penultimate one given by Esa -Pekka Salonen was in the celestial bracket. Therefore, clearly the final concert with its amalgam of young singers in operatic excerpts and short orchestral works was expected to be quite different and to showcase repertoire that rarely features in the orchestra’s concerts. This was an admirable aim.                       However, the enterprise was sadly subjected to cancellations. The proposed connection with Glyndebourne did not happen, the programme was changed as a result with Massenet disappearing and the vocal part of the programme became simply excerpts from La Traviata. Finally one of singers cried off.  Add to that the poor publicity which perhaps resulted in what looked like an audience significantly below the usual full or nearly full house, and it was surprising that it was not a complete disaster. However, in truth it was a concert that was not within reaching distance of giving the satisfaction usually experienced in this Residency and rather sadly finished the season without any real flourish.

Not that it was without pleasures. Indeed, the orchestra’s playing of the Prelude to La Traviata, one of the most sheerly beautiful beginnings of any opera, produced a sound far richer than is often possible with an orchestra buried in a theatre pit. Then there was the late substitute, the Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan who immediately established why she had made the final of the 2017 Cardiff Competition and had received some outstanding reviews for her performance as Violetta with the Scottish Opera. It was immediately clear that she has a voice of great power, agility and beauty. It was also obvious that she had performed the role on the stage in that with her movements and facial expressions she was able in less than ideal conditions, simply standing there in an evening dress, to convey the tragic poignancy of Violetta’s position.

The young British tenor Stuart Jackson also revealed a voice that has a fine ring to it and is used with considerable artistry. However, in this context he struggled to establish Alfredo as much of a dramatic foil to Violetta, not least perhaps because Verdi  declines to give the character the same rich complexity as his heroine. However, I felt the main culprit to be the format. This was an impossibly half hearted effort to deliver a great opera in potted form, with the protagonists simulating the unfolding tragedy by drifting on and off stage, occasionally having a cuddle and  with Violetta finally dying standing up supported by her lover. It was something and nothing which might not have been the case had what appeared to be the original intention of featuring  operatic highlights from two very different  composers been achieved.

After the interval there was even less focus to the proceedings. One had sympathy for the conductor Cristoph Altstaedt making his debut in Leicester having to breathe life into two shortish free standing orchestral works. Batonless, he clearly had control. In the opera there had been moments when the points made in the orchestra suggested a keen musical mind. The Prelude has already been mentioned but also of note were moments such as in the 2rd Act where violas and cellos produced a searing sound wonderfully apt to the unfolding tragic situation between Violetta and her lover.

However, in the Siegfried Idyll and Les Preludes he struggled to inject much character into the music. Not that there is much character in the first place in Liszt’s tone poem. Liszt was a kind man and befriended and supported Berlioz through the many disappointments of the latter’s life. On this occasion, though, I found myself thinking that he would have done well to have learnt something about orchestration from his French friend. I had often wondered why Liszt’s  tone poems are so rarely performed . The extraordinary bombast of certain passages in this work told me why. Romanticism, whether in music or in literature, certainly has more than its fair share of dreadful moments of inflation .  Here the programme told us that one theme represents the ‘insoluble puzzle of man’s existence’ to be followed by one that describes ‘Man after the battle for self awareness’, in this instance arguably a battle which the composer had most assuredly lost.

The Wagner is, of course, another matter but in the orchestral version of the Idyll there is something of the same inflationary problem . In the original it is a wonderfully loving musical poem to Cosima.  In the full orchestral version that quality can be difficult to convey and so it proved here. It seemed a well executed performance but not once for me did it convey the tenderness and love that lies at the centre of this beautiful work.  Perhaps the problem was again the format in that the short second half of the concert seemed simply a postscript to the main purpose of the evening.

So, in all honesty it was a rather unsatisfying end to a fine season. Happily, on paper it looks as if the next season should be of an equally high quality.

 

News

Before the Summer break there are still two musical events not to be missed in Leicester.

  1. For those of us who like whole operas we have what has become the annual visit of the fine English Touring Opera to Curve to look forward to. They are offering the Marriage of Figaro on the 29th of this month and on the 30th Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Gianni Schicchi from Puccini’s three one act operas that go to make up Il Trittico . Both evenings have received high praise from London critics.
  2. At the New Walk Museum on Saturday June 23rd at 7.30 the Leicester International Music Festival is mounting as in previous years a celebrity Piano Recital, given this year by the exciting Russian pianist Yefgeny Sudbin in a programme of Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven, Scriabin and Saint- Saens.