The Lunchtime Series: Goldner String Quartet,6th.December 2018

It was a great pleasure to welcome the Goldner String Quartet to Leicester for the first time. This Australian ensemble has built over 20 or more years an enviable reputation, enough so for them to record at regular intervals for the Record Company Hyperion. In this concert in which they played Shostakovich’s First Quartet and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet one could see why they have been held in high regard over the years.

To state the obvious the sound of quartets can vary hugely. Broadly speaking some place great emphasis on the individuality of each player rather than seeking an instantly recognisable corporate sound in which each player melts indivisibly into the whole, unless of course the music demands otherwise. For many this was and perhaps still is the Holy Grail . However , to judge by what has been heard in recent years in the Gallery perhaps the pendulum has swung towards favouring the former approach. Is this one of the aims I wonder of an increasing number of quartets playing standing up. For this listener at least that has the effect of spotlighting individual musicians, though not always to the benefit of the overall effect. And of course it is not either/ or but rather a spectrum.

The Goldner on first impressions, perhaps from having played together for so many years, have the prime aim of producing a finely integrated sound. The first violinist made a point of saying that Shostakovich’s First Quartet is very unlike what was to come later. Here it emerged as witty in an amiable rather than a sardonic way, with at times what was to be later a very uncharacteristically warm sound . There were few hard edges, though I wondered once or twice whether they might be found in the music should the interpretation be going in that direction. However, as played here it made a delightful entree to the main course.

The Schubert that followed was given a superbly energetic performance. One noted on occasions how the quartet had a rich bottom to the sound, with the cello in particular giving the impetus quite often in the two outer movements. Indeed, the thrusting reading of the latter played with considerable virtuosity resulted in a large ovation at the end of the concert.

However, I was slightly less persuaded by the interpretations of in particular the Andante. Was there I wondered more scope for the violins to sing out and caress a phrase than on this occasion was sometimes in evidence? Indeed, throughout, I thought the balance rather inclined to the bass rather than the treble and I felt that I had heard interpretations which on occasions took flight in a way this one did not quite.

So, I enjoyed the concert but had some reservations. And then it came to me how much listening to music is dependant on many personal things quite unrelated to things musical. The previous evening Leicester’s concert hall had seen the Philharmonia give the Strauss concert of a life time and I suspect that I may have had some difficulty in adjusting quickly enough on the next morning to chamber music! Suffice to say, I would relish hearing the Goldner Quartet again , this time when I hope to be rather more keenly receptive.

 

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The Philharmonia-Sophie Bevan,Santtu-Matias Rouvali, 5th December 2018

This was an astonishing concert. One composer evenings are fairly rare, for obvious reasons. To centre such a one around a huge work which has had in its time more than a few critics was even today an act of daring but, my goodness, how it came off. I remembered a comment about Strauss from an unlikely source, Benjamin Britten, a very different composer, in which he described him as ‘the old magician’and I don’t think I have ever thought that so vividly illustrated in the concert hall as on this evening.

The opening offering was perhaps not quite as magical as the rest of the concert. The orchestral pot pouri from Rosenkavalier that the conductor Rodzinski  compiled 30 or more years after the first performance of the opera has always seemed to me rather Technicolor, I’ve been inclined to think rather the MGM movie of the musical. However, on this occasion such was the ebullience of the performance under the Finnish conductor  Santtu-Matias Rouvali that I was very happy to swing along with it, much as I sometimes missed the frequently poignant beauty of the original. Who could resist the wit which was conveyed in this piece? It was enough to note the enjoyment with which the orchestra played it, (the front desk cellist had a broad smile on her face much of the time!) and one would have had to be an old curmudgeon indeed not to love the whole bag of tricks.

Something much deeper was to follow, though. Some years ago, Four Last Songs was performed at DMH by a distinguished German soprano and it was rather disappointing. Quite often she failed to penetrate the at times swelling orchestral accompaniment. One knew that Kirsten Flagstad was the first performer and no doubt the great Wagnerian singer had the range for the music but afterwards it became a daunting work to perform live for even those singers famed for their performances in Strauss’ operas. Recording is of course a different matter where balancing can do the trick.

Well, over the last few years Sophie Bevan is a singer who had made people sit up. Hers has always been a voice of delectable beauty and, having seen her a number of times in opera, it is clear that she has a quite superb dramatic sense. This year, though, I have had the good fortune to hear her twice, once in Britten’s Les Illuminations and then later in Handel’s Samson where she sang Delilah to such effect that one wondered how any man would exchange a life with her for bringing down God’s wrath and a temple on the Philistines. The voice seemed now to have attained startling amplitude without losing any of its creamy beauty. So, the prospect of hearing her in some of the loveliest and most moving music Strauss had written in a long life was mouth watering.

Of course, the prospect sometimes does not always turn into the reality. Well, it did here. One person after the concert said to me he thought it was the most telling performance of the work live that he had ever heard and I cannot but agree. The singer was up to every challenge but more to the point she palpably lived every moment of this valedictory music, being alert to every nuance and inflection of the words and at times in posture as well as in voice conveying the stillness at the centre of the work. Most of all, though, those heart stopping moments where the voice must soar effortlessly into the stratosphere were delivered with a beauty beyond words. Nobody was more in love with the soprano voice than Strauss and if proof was needed here it was.

What could follow that, one wondered. The answer was The Alpine Symphony in a performance of extraordinary power that revealed it as one of the composer’s greatest works. Right from the very beginning, when probably for the first time in the century of DMH 20 horns were secreted below the feet  of the audience, this listener felt he was on an immense journey in which all the feelings engendered by nature at its most varied inevitably mirrored human existence at its most lovely and its most frightening. Strauss was frequently denigrated as a mere orchestral painter. Here it was true that one gasped at times at the virtuosity of the orchestration but one also gasped at its beauty as well as its capacity to frighten and overwhelm. Just one passage will have to stand for many, where the climbers encounter first the chilling majesty of the glacier which morphs into an extraordinary interlude in which the climbers are lost and at each step the music somehow conveys the lack of balance and the desperation , all of it then to be swept away when at last the summit was achieved in music which surely can rarely have been surpassed at communicating heart stopping grandeur and wonder. I was reminded later on of Keats’ great sonnet On First looking into Chapman’s Homer when the poet compares his feelings of stunned discovery when first reading the translated Iliad to those when  Cortez saw  a vast ocean for the first time and

‘ star’d at the Pacific –and with all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise-

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Except of course that Strauss can hardly be silent but for a moment!

I don’t think that any more words are needed about a concert that should stay for a long time in the memory.   

Lunchtime Series: Elysium Brass Ensemble, 22nd November 2018

The fourth concert of this winter’s Lunchtime Series featured the welcome return of the Elysium Brass Ensemble who made a very successful debut in Leicester in 2016,how successful was perhaps indicated this time round by the concert being a sell out.

The Ensemble have a number of things going for them. Firstly, they are splendid virtuoso players. Secondly, they convey the joys of youth. It used to be that in the world of classical music most players clearly would see it as part of their brief to maintain a stern demeanour which conveyed the seriousness of their profession. Never so much as a smile would crease their faces. Now it is much more common, at least in these concerts, for artists to see it as part of their remit to engage with their audience. This ensemble do that to perfection: their concerts seem almost like spontaneous events arranged for friends.

Their programme this time followed very much the pattern of the previous one. It was an eclectic mixture of music that ranged through the centuries as well as ringing the changes in mood. It started with a fanfare of the modern day and then slipped seamlessly into the 16th and 17th centuries with firstly Battle Suite by a composer unknown to me who rejoiced in the name of Scheidt. I did remember the suite though which was put together by that noted brass player of my generation, Phillip Jones of the brass ensemble of the same name. It sent shivers of delight in its grandness when I first heard it and it did here. It conveys something of the grace and grandeur of the Renaissance Courts of Europe which is particularly exemplified for us by the entertainments to be found in those of Elizabeth the First and James the First, the first Golden period of English music.

That mood was carried on in a performance of Gabrieli ‘s Canzone No.4. in which the three players attempted to copy in the Museum the sonic effect obtained in St.Mark’s Venice by brass instruments being played from separate galleries. Well, nobody, not even the players, expected that to work fully but it mattered little since the sound was stunning.

Then it was on to two works by composers of the late 19c. and early 20c. Firstly, the audience was given a second chance to sample the music of Victor Ewald who it appears was firstly a Russian civil engineer and secondly a musician. I had to be careful here since I remember being somewhat lukewarm about the brass quintet featured in the earlier concert and I wasn’t sure but that we might be getting a re-run.  I had made no note of the number of the work then being played so the chance of making a greater fool than usual of myself was clearly on the cards. However, I was assured by a man who did know that this was a different quintet, Number 3 ,and indeed the introduction made a point of suggesting that this was probably the best in the series. It certainly caught my attention much more, though curiously not in the slow movement which in the previous work played seemed to be the most memorable. Here what the programme described as the gently lyrical Andante I thought to be rather low in ear catching lyricism. No, it was the other three movements which had a freshness of invention. The Intermezzo in particular seemed music of high quality. There was here some superb trumpet playing in a devilish part of the movement but overall the work was thoroughly engaging.

Alas, I do wish I could say the same about the transcription of Ravel’s famous Pavane. It rather puzzles me why the Ensemble should be so keen to play transcriptions of French music of the beginning of the 20c when, in the case of the two major composers, it is music whose central concerns are of colour, fluid structures and subtle dynamics.  One realises that transcription is perforce the nature of the game for a brass ensemble but surely the capacity of the particular instrument or ensemble to deliver something of the world of the original should be artistically crucial in the choice. Last time it was Debussy ‘s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and I have to say I felt  that this time the treatment of Ravel’s beautiful piano piece which ten years later he made into the more famous orchestral version seemed to me equally unsuccessful. Both of the originals, particularly the latter scored for gentle horns, harp, woodwind and strings , may not be intended to evoke any dead Infanta but their sound world is nonetheless exquisite. In this transcription, perhaps inevitably given the nature of brass instruments en masse, that evaporated and it was as if someone engaged in a beautifully graceful and wistful slow dance had been asked to perform it in hobnail boots. Perhaps, it might not have been quite the case in a less intimate acoustic that did more to let the sound expand and soften.

Anyhow, that over ,the concert finished on a much more successful note for me with music that was thoroughly popular,upbeat and highly suitable. Soney Kompanek’s Killer Tango was indeed a killer, played with tremendous swing and sensuousness and Paul Nagle’s Jive for Five in which the Tuba Player was given an unusually prominent role to play made for a wonderfully lively ending to the programme.

Except that it didn’t end there for we had a return from the previous concert of a rather lovely transcription(!) about that famous bird that is heard singing in a notable London Square and once again one felt the Ensemble had given a Leicester audience a truly delightful concert. I hope they will return sooner rather than later.

 

News.

There are two concerts coming up which should not be missed.

Wed .December 5th 7.30 at DMH sees the Philharmonia under their principal guest conductor Rouvali playing Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite followed by his mighty Alpine Symphony. As if that was enough, Sophie Bevan is singing the Four Last Songs. Having heard her twice in recent months, all I can say is that she is a young singer in her prime. At the Festival I introduced her name to an American opera director. He went home to the USA and emailed me later saying that he had listened to one or two short recordings of hers.  His comment was that she was ‘terrific’.

Thurs.December 6th 1.00 has The Goldner Quartet coming to Leicester with a high reputation internationally. For details see the Leicester Festival website.

Bardi Symphony Orchestra: Britten’s War Requiem DMH, 10th November 2018

The first performance of Britten’s War Requiem was certainly one of the most extraordinary musical events in the 20thc. Never in my lifetime has a new work received such acclaim. It sold over a 100,000 LP’s worldwide when it was recorded , a number unheard of for a classical disc. Of course, such popularity brought its inevitable number of nay sayers ,who assume that popular taste must be one that is debased, chief amongst them being  Igor Stravinsky , never noted for his generosity to  a fellow composer, and a distinguished American critic who declared the work to be in the last resort ‘superficial’.   Well, here we are in the 21st century and to judge by the frequency of the work’s performances around the globe the public’s initial opinion has been vindicated, that the War Requiem is a gold plated masterpiece of the choral repertoire.

However, it is a devil of a piece to deliver. There are first of all the problems of balance between the main and the chamber orchestras  and between the main choir and that of the choristers. The musical demands , the spotlighting at times of all participants, particularly the soloists where the males in particular are singing a song cycle in the middle of a Mass, are relentless. On occasions some problems are insoluble. I have heard the work done at least twice in London’s Festival Hall where the dry acoustics nullified some of the most striking features of the work. It was after all written for a cathedral and its spaces. In London perhaps the best venue in my experience was the dear old Royal Albert Hall but of all the concert halls Symphony Hall in Birmingham did just fine a few years ago in a performance under Andris Nelsons.

All the above might explain why I approached this performance with a degree of trepidation. Common to all the performances I had heard previously were top of the range singers, choirs and orchestras. In addition the level of expectation associated with this performance was unique. Here it was to be done on the day before the 100th. anniversary of the end of the Great War and, as if that was not enough, a week after Wilfred Owen’s own death on the battlefield a century ago. What a wonderfully moving touch it was for The Times to publish last week an obituary a 100 years on to a poet who was at the time of his death virtually unknown. With all that, how likely, I wondered, was it that soloists relatively early in their careers , three choirs of a provincial city, a largely amateur orchestra and a conductor directing the work for the first time would collectively be able to deliver the goods.

Well, they could and they did.  Of course, not everything resulted in complete satisfaction.  Of the soloists, soprano Ilona Domnich, singing the more conventional  part of the Mass itself, made perhaps the greatest impression with a glorious voice sailing above the orchestra on occasions. As regards tenor Mark Milhofer and baritone Malachy Frame tackling the Owen settings, both clearly have fine voices which were used here with considerable refinement. Ideally at times I wanted something a bit rougher, more dramatic. For example, in The Next War the forced trench jollity wasn’t quite communicated.  Also, I felt that a relatively light baritone was not an ideal voice for one or two of the settings, notably Britten’s devastating delivery of the poem  describing a big gun being brought into action. The final line  ‘May God  curse thee and cut thee from our soul !’ ideally does need a weight and darkness of timbre. However, conversely the likeness of voices did make the ‘Strange Meeting’ of the two opposing soldiers perhaps even more poignant in that it drove home the bond between the two that leads to the benediction of the work’s closing moments.

The local choirs rose to the challenges splendidly.  Unsurprisingly in such a huge work not everything was ideal. The problem of the positioning off stage of the choristers was not entirely solved. They were ethereal to the point of disappearance if one was seated stage right whereas  I was assured by one person they were splendid for those sitting stage left. In the main choirs there could at times have been rather more projection in some of the intense quiet moments of the score.  The start to the Libera Me was one such moment but here and elsewhere, as in the Dies Irae, waves of full throated sound eventually drove everything before it to magnificent effect. Overall, though, what was so moving was the obvious commitment of every member of each choir to strain themselves to the very utmost of their capacity and therefore time and again the essence of the work was communicated . That in itself made for an especially moving occasion.

And as for the orchestras, well, they were simply magnificent.  One aspect of Britten’s genius is his ability to conjure up the most atmospheric of sound worlds from small bands and nowhere is this better shown than in this work in the chamber orchestra’s accompaniments to the Owen poems. The drawback for the instrumentalists is their exposure! Suffice to say that time and again they fully supported the singers in establishing the wonderfully precise and evocative musical setting of each poem. Has any music ever been written that is more likely to produce tears than the setting of one of Owen’s very greatest poems, ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’, or the ending of the work with, in the Libera Me,  the ghostly dream Purgatory of ‘Strange Meeting’? Here the orchestral accompaniment was simply superb in creating Britten’s and Owen’s vision. Lastly, it must be said that as far as the main orchestra was concerned there were just  too many fine moments to record but perhaps the palm goes to the brass who displayed, for example, a wonderful punch to the Dies irae.

Finally, there was the conductor, Claus Efland. This may have been his first performance of the work but he gave the impression of having a clear vision with everything at his finger tips, which obviously gave to all the security needed to ascend this Everest of music. Hence, he and all who took part were able to make this a truly memorable evening of remembrance and contemplation. At the end the silence was palpable and then all received the ovation they had truly deserved.

 

 

 

 

Lunchtime Series: Clare Hammond, November 8th, 2018

A few days ago one of the music critics of a very prestigious newspaper confessed himself so bowled over by a concert that he was lost for words and that all he could do was give it 5 stars. Now, two things suggest themselves. Firstly, why feel guilty about that? Secondly, it is quite a rare stance indeed amongst critics. The late Edward Greenfield, the long-time critic of another newspaper, once said to me that he wished he could be called an appreciator , an attitude he told me roundly attacked by, amongst others, a friend of his, a noted American Critic, who seemed to feel that to write an article without finding something wanting was an abdication of a critic’s duty to maintain ‘standards’. It is a siren voice but luckily I only have to remind myself that this is a Diary in which I can say as many times as I like that I have enjoyed something totally and then the other sort can be waved aside and left to find their own weird pleasure in playing at Beckmessers.

This is just as well since Clare Hammond’s debut recital at the Museum as far as I was concerned was of a quality that simply destroyed any attempt of a ‘balanced’ response. I have said this before but it is manifestly true that in the history of this country’s music there have never been so  many British pianists of international quality around at one time and many of them have appeared at the Museum over the years. To that roll call can now be added Clare Hammond.

To my shame, I had only vaguely registered her presence on the scene and the CV on the programme perhaps showed why. She would appear to be quite simply a polymath with immensely wide interests. Many years ago I can remember a commentary that came with a CD featuring the great Claudio Arrau describing how in his youth he had embarked on such things as a study of philosophy, apparently believing that great piano playing arose not just from fleet fingers but also involved a deep understanding of the human condition. One thing is for sure, Clare Hammond has an instinct for constructing  a deeply satisfying programme, the features of which are delivered with succinct introductions that hit nail after nail on the head. I particularly admired the suggestion that in the last item ,the gigantic beast that is Rachmaninov’s 2nd Sonata , we should just go with the force. In a surging performance like this that was what was needed . It was played with such bravura that one understood the notice the pianist had once received describing her as a ‘dazzling athlete’ . I wondered what athletic discipline the metaphor was suggesting. The pole vault perhaps? However, it was not all riveting virtuosity. The composer’s heartfelt melancholy was also most memorably conveyed.

Before that last item we had had picture in miniature of her range. The concert started with a Haydn Piano Sonata, No. 58. Now, there has been a movement to establish this part of the composer’s output as unjustly neglected .  It has been a movement that I have not hitherto thought particularly convincing, not finding it music that particularly sticks in the mind and feeling it perhaps rather narrow in range. I am sure I am wrong and there were many moments in this performance that suggested why that might be so. Particularly in the opening variations this artist found a range of utterance and colour that suggested this to be music of considerable subtlety.

That subtlety and the scope generally of the playing was even more to the fore in the performance of a number of Debussy’s Preludes.  I have rarely heard such simply wonderful  playing of this music, at least in the setting of this gallery. The tonal range was amazing in Sails and Dead Leaves, the virtuosity  of Fireworks and The Hills of AnaCapri equally  extraordinary and we were well and truly enveloped by the most famous of the set , The Submerged Cathedral , with its mystery and its great surges of sound. As I listened to this, I wondered where I had heard it performed with this power before and then it came to me. Some years ago Ronan O’Hora was a frequent visitor to Leicester and he got a similarly seemingly effortless range of sound and colour out of the Museum Steinway, something that could not always be guaranteed  with some other pianists.  Well, lo and behold, it would appear from the programme that he was Clare Hammond’s tutor for a while.  I now better understand why in my youth so much used to be made of pianists who had been the pupils of the very last of Liszt’s protégés. It seemed so tenuous a link at the time but perhaps something of unique value can be passed on generation by generation after all.

Whatever, the clear fact is we really must hear more of Clare Hammond in Leicester, preferably in a full recital, and to judge from the ovation she received I am certainly not alone in wishing that.

 

News

Sat. 10th November 7.30 DMH

A Unique occasion, in which to commemorate almost to the day the 100th anniversary of the ending of the  Great War, Leicester Bach Choir, Leicester Philharmonic Choir, Leicester Chorale and Leicester Cathedral Choristers, The Bardi Orchestra and soloists perform under Claus Efland what has over the last nearly 60 years become recognised worldwide as one of the greatest and most moving choral works in the repertoire, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

 

The Philharmonia: Kit Armstrong, Clemens Schuldt , October 26th 2018

Two artists new to Leicester , the pianist Kit Armstrong and the conductor Clemens Schuldt, featured in the opening concert of the 2018/2019 Residency so there was immediately a sense of novelty about the concert, not least because one has learnt over the years that the orchestra has a tremendous track record for discovering new talent .

Now, Walter Legge the founder of this orchestra after WW2 seemingly often used the term ‘novelty’ for works which were outside the central European tradition, an attitude which in the 1950’s,even into the 60’s could result in somewhat limited programming. In regard to what opened this concert, however, this term could be applied rather more aptly in that the audience in a secret ballot had chosen the work to be played.

And what had Leicester chosen? Well, ironically it would have warmed the cockles of the founder’s heart to find that what had popped up was Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture , a staple work with which to start a concert in his time and yet in 2018 I suspect a comparative rarity. Certainly I have not heard it for many a year. Listening to it again I thought what a pity that was and what a splendid start to a programme it makes, certainly when played with the brio the conductor and the orchestra brought to it here. Clemens Schuldt is clearly of the expressive school of conductors. Once upon a time, I might have disapproved. Once I came close to dismissing Bernstein as a circus act, that is until I shut my eyes and listened to what he got from the orchestra. It was enough here to say that this performance drained the work of all possible bombast and delivered instead music that reflected  Brahms ‘ apparently  simple joyous celebration at being given a PHD by Breslau University!  As the climax of the overture rang out, the rendering of the student song  Gaudeamus Igitur (Therefore let us rejoice, if my little Latin is correct), it was difficult to think of a more apt choice for the opening of a season’s music.

There followed a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Conc. No 5  that for me had a similar effect of being a re- discovery of a long lost friend. I realised that, like the Brahms, I had not heard it in a concert for a long time and this performance certainly brought out what an extraordinary work it is, combining grandeur with at times some of the most purely beautiful music Beethoven ever wrote.

Such a range ,of course, presents the performers with some tricky decisions to make, of how to achieve an ideal balance between the dramatic and the lyrical, and perhaps it is inevitable in most performances that one may feel that not everything in the landscape has been fully brought into focus. In this performance, the slow movement , perhaps the least wide ranging  in terms of mood, was delivered with a divine clarity which spoke directly and without any trace of sentimentality. The music’s  sublimity was there for all to hear and one understood how Kit Armstrong had built the kind of reputation alluded to in the Programme Notes.

In the outer movements, however,that was not always perhaps quite so apparent. Playing on the DMH’s Fazioli, at times he seemed to struggle to compete with the drama of the orchestral  playing. The virtuosity was not in doubt but the tone was often rather unforgiving and lacking in warmth. Weight of utterance sometimes seemed in short supply with the result that some moments of drama and grandeur did not make their full effect. One wondered perhaps whether the instrument   itself was the problem. When first bought, a common audience complaint was that it was not ideal for the big concertos, seeming to lack the weight needed in such works. In more recent years, for whatever reason, the complaints seemed to have lessened,  the instrument appearing to have acquired a more powerful voice without losing any of its central qualities of sparkling focus and clarity. Perhaps it is simply that it does not deliver all those qualities with ease.

There were no such reservations about the performance of the last work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This was simply glorious. Ever since I heard a Beecham performance at Oxford in the late 1950’s I have been, to use a pertinent word given the subject matter, a slave to the work. It has, alas, been always a composition about which superior people like to be sniffy.  But why? Is there any work that better creates through the most wonderful orchestration and the most memorable of melodies a world of magic? Perhaps the allure of the east captured me when I was taken at the age of 6 to see my first film, Alexander Korda’s ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ but I fully believe that to hear this music when played by a great symphony orchestra is a breathtakingly entrancing experience and is something to be cherished and not something to feel guilty about.

There is one moment in the work which is for me the touchstone to the quality of the performance . It comes at the beginning of the second movement when the composer gives to the bassoon what must surely be some of the most sensuous music ever given to the instrument. On the record Beecham made just after the live performance I heard, one will hear the great Gwydion Brooke allowed by the great conductor to weave his magic whilst the conductor by a miracle keeps the orchestra with him. Beecham’s comment about good conducting being simply the engagement of the best players and then letting them play came to mind when I listened to Clemens Schuldt appearing to give Emily Hultmark her chance to paint her alluring picture in sound. It was then that I knew that she and he were each the real thing. Mind you, I could have compiled a long list of players on this occasion for whom a conductor might die, at some moment every lead woodwind player, a brass section of remarkable heft and richness of sound, the leader of the cello section and Zsolt Visontay ,the orchestra’s leader, whose violin brought the story teller to vivid life. And finally an overall corporate sound of gleaming richness.

It was a pity that we had to return at the end to the outside world and that the audience’s cheers had to be cut short because these wonderful players had trains to catch but, if this season is of the quality of this performance, then there are some wonderful treats ahead.

Lunchtime Series : Julian Bliss, Robert Bottriell, October25th 2018

The opening of the second concert in the 2018/19 Lunchtime series was one of the more surprising in recent history in that the duo mounted the stage in the usual fashion, full of smiles for the audience, only for Julian Bliss, once his partner was seated, with a grin to appear as if he were some professional boxer about to embark on a quick limbering up before getting down to business. Now, the line between removing the stuffiness which is so often the bane of the classical music scene and distracting gimmickry is a narrow one but here in fact it seemed to herald a serious point, to be taken up later in the recital, about the physical effort needed to play a clarinet. The artist gave a frightening description of the breathing required at times simply to produce a series of notes on the instrument.

So what, one might say, and such a response might have been justified had there not been some fascinating musical results. One expects virtuosity of a high order from the young lions of the present musical scene and the programme was indeed a daunting one but every challenge seemed to me to be met. Perhaps I am mistaken but this quite stunning recital produced clarinet playing of a dynamic range that I cannot remember ever quite hearing before, at least in the works played. In my youth and indeed more recently I seem to remember a sound which was mainly aimed at emphasising the instrument’s rich warmth in the middle and lower ranges, whilst reining in the sharpness at the top. Here there was no such holding back and the result in the two works I had heard a number of times in the past, Poulenc’s Sonata and Brahms Op 120, No .1 was that one was forced to re-assess the dramatic scope of the music.

This was particularly noticeable in the Poulenc. There have been several performances of this work in the last few years in Leicester, performances which largely emphasised the wit and the cool Gallic lyricism typical of the composer. However, and presumably coincidentally, the programme notes this time spoke of the music’s ambiguity, even of its occasional moments of desperation and melancholy, suggesting there to be a somewhat  darker side to the work. This is precisely what came across in this performance in its wide dynamic range and the occasional piercing shrillness of the sound. It was a penetrating interpretation indeed.

Similarly the Brahms came across as no perpetually relaxed sunlit world, though there was plenty of that in this performance. There were many breathtakingly beautiful moments, for instance a sublime pianissimo in the slow moment in which even in this intimate hall the silken thread of sound was on the verge of extinction. In the joyous third movement particularly notable was the bell like contribution of the piano. However, it was in the outer movements that the players found a surprising amount of drama in the work without ever undermining its basic lyrical impetus. Increasingly I find myself drawn to the late works of this composer. It seems that here and elsewhere, as in the late piano pieces, now that he had shrugged off the weight of being seen as Beethoven’s successor, he found a rather different voice, one which at times looked forward to the new century rather than backwards to the old. As Bliss suggested, what a benediction for his instrument was this late flowering of this composer’s genius.

That new century was represented in this programme by Debussy’s Premiére Rhapsodie , a test piece but  full of the composer’s wonderful responsiveness to the colours offered by an instrument, an offer which both players took up enthusiastically. Sadly , to be honest, I discerned little of that responsiveness in Olah’s Sonata for solo clarinet. Curiously, at a first hearing it was this work which seemed to me more obviously a test piece, setting out a brief set of obstacles to be overcome by the artist. Here they were, of course, triumphantly overcome but much more fun was to be had in the encore, a famous Hungarian czardas which makes no pretence of musical depth but is beloved of violinists wishing to strut their stuff. Well, this duo certainly did that in a transcription for piano and clarinet.  After the languorous opening with the piano taking the lead, the headlong chase to the finish took one’s breath away, though not apparently the clarinettist’s. Amazingly he emerged unscathed from what had been indeed a taxing hour’s playing and neither should one forget the pianist who contributed in considerable measure to a memorable concert .

 

The Leicester International Music Festival 2018 Sept.20th-22nd

So once again the diarist is faced at the beginning of the new season with the explosion of music that is the Leicester International Festival, when one goes from nothing suddenly to five concerts of the utmost variety and quality, all packed within three days. It is a joy but also a problem to write about. How is one to do justice to it, not least because the faculties are sometimes close to being overwhelmed by so much intense music making? However, how moving it was for one involved with LIMF for all but one of its 29 years to hear after the last concert, Peter Mark, husband to Thea Musgrave ( one of the featured composers), and a distinguished American musician in his own right, declare how wonderful it was that a city of Leicester’s relatively modest size should mount a musical event of such astonishing international quality. Indeed, such was the international quality of the remarkable ensemble that perhaps a roll call is needed before any comments are made on the performances. At least then nobody should go unnoticed in the hurly burly!

Firstly, we welcomed back French violinist Marina Chiche, joined this year by Kristin Lee from the USA. American violist Richard O’Neill, after his astonishing debut last year, returned. Debutants American Ani Aznavoorian and German Leonard Elschenbroich were the cellists, and Brit. Chi Chi Nwanoku the double bass. The piano parts featured a newcomer from Georgia by way of the Netherlands, Nino Gvetadzse , and Russian Lydia Kavina played the Theremin (more of that later!). Those stalwarts of the festival, pianist Katya Apekisheva, oboist supreme and Festival Director Nicholas Daniel, plus the Haffner Wind Ensemble completed the group.

The intent behind the choice of music centred as it was, besides Thea Musgrave, on Dvorak and Rachmaninov and linked to their American experiences, was fascinating, particularly when one read the Director’s gentle castigation in his Introduction to the Festival of a distinguished German pianist’s dismissal of the Russian as ‘writing music for teenagers’. Once again I thought how things have changed in my lifetime, and for the better. In the 1950’s Grove’s Dictionary, the bible of contemporary musical tastes, an eminent music critic, and no fool ( it was he that forecast that ‘Peter Grimes’ would go into the international repertoire), declared that little if any of Rachmaninov’s music would be played in the future. Furthermore, the very first concert I went to in the then new Festival Hall and conducted by George Weldon featured Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’. I enjoyed it but almost immediately after that I heard Beethoven’s 5th for the first time, conducted by Furtwangler no less, and such was the impact that I tended to agree with a school friend and general opinion that German music was really the thing. However, over the years I have come to question that, particularly since the bulk of the greatest of late 19c and then 20c. music seemed to me to come irrefutably from countries other than Germany and Austria i.e, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, France, Italy, America and Britain. (Incidentally how delightful it was to hear Simon Rattle last week when opening the LSO series with a complete programme of British music, refer to such music as ‘a treasure trove’. Only a few years ago such programming would have been thought an enormous gamble but here it attracted full houses and from experience that is no longer a cause for surprise.)

Therefore, it was not any surprise that there were enthusiastic audiences for the programmes in the Museum. In the first Lunchtime concert from the opening with Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque, even in this early work one had evidence of the composer’s  inexhaustible capacity to shape a melody. The passionate performance by Ciche, Aznavoorian and Gvetadzse immediately set a high standard for the three days.

Perhaps, though, even more memorable was the performance of one of Dvorak’s masterpieces, the String Quartet Op.96 ‘American’. It so happens that only a few months ago I  heard a very fine interpretation of this by the Maggini Quartet, beautifully moulded and with a sound of the utmost mellowness. As it was launched here that clearly was not the aim.  Lee, Chiche, O’Neil and Aznavoorian went at it like a bull at a gate and once it settled the first movement was about as thrilling, urgent and dramatic as I have ever heard it played. And yet the sound never descended into coarseness. The lyricism of the slow movement was all there and the extraordinary clarity between the parts brought its own rewards.

Sandwiched between these was a finely atmospheric work by Musgrave, Night Windows. I remember, when the composer came fifteen years ago to the festival, finding her music endlessly fascinating. It seemed to me then that it was music that was clearly and imaginatively conceived , not a note too many and hence often of concentrated impact. On a first hearing of this work, played by Daniel and Apekisheva, I found in particular the evocation of the signature painting by Hopper quite wonderfully evocative. How well the timbre of the oboe was used throughout to evoke the different mood of each ‘window’ and the edginess of a city at night.

And so the ship was launched. In the evening concert, in the first half we had Bartok, Musgrave and Martinu. The contemporary piece Niobe,for oboe and tape was, alas, not a success and showed possibly the problems that can occur when instrumental music is wedded to electronic. The programme described the latter as accompaniment to the oboe. In the event, after an apparently successful rehearsal, the volume knob must have been turned up, so much so that the instrument was frequently drowned by the speakers. Indeed, at times this listener found the piercingly loud volume of the latter replicated what I imagine to be the experience of being subjected to torture. It was all rather sad since one caught at times in quieter passages a haunting quality that suggested this to be a work of considerable imagination.

Elsewhere in the first part we had an invigorating performance, full of gypsy sounds and rhythms, of Bartok’s Second Rhapsody for violin and piano, given by Chiche and Apekisheva. This was followed by a strangely beautiful work by Martinu, Fantasia for therimin ,oboe, string quartet and piano. I’ve long had a liking for this composer’s work. Some of his symphonic and operatic writing has a rare radiance and his sound world is usually instantly recognisable. So it was here. The theremin is an electronic music instrument which produces a single note at a time, changed as a result of the player’s hands moving across an electronic field. The sound itself is remarkably beautiful in an ethereal way and one of the pleasures of the live performance was to watch the player as if by magic conjuring these sounds out of the ether. However, the central point was the glow of much of this music as delivered by Apekisheva, Daniel and the string quartet. It is curious that Martinu is not more widely performed.

There was more discovery for me in the second half with a performance of Dvorak’s String Quintet Op 77, a work I cannot recall ever having heard live. The first two movements, perhaps because of the length of the concert and a flagging concentration, I found slightly ordinary for Dvorak . However, from the scherzo onwards it took off. Indeed the second slow movement seemed the composer at his most inspired and the invention of the last movement in an invigorating performance by the violins, viola , Elschenbroich cello and Nwanoku double bass danced us all out into the night.

At 1.p.m next day we were back to be welcomed by Musgrave’s Cantilena ,a work for oboe , violin (Chiche), viola, and cello (Aznavoorian). I remembered how sometimes this composer likes to wed her music to the physical space in which it is to be performed, here a new hall at its opening being gradually welcomed into the fold of a city’s scene. This was music that seemed clearly and dramatically to go from A to B and then finally to C, fully engaging the attention on the journey.

Following this came Apekisheva and Gvetadze performing ravishingly some Rachmaninov for four hands, in which it rapidly became clear that with the latter Leicester was meeting for the first time yet another fine pianist. This became even clearer in what followed in a performance by her, Lee, and Aznavoorian of Dvorak’s Piano Trio ‘Dumky’. I’ve always thought this work one of the loveliest and most haunting in the repertoire but have also recognised that it is not that easy to hold together. As it so happened, there was a very fine performance in the Gallery only last year but this one was certainly its equal, if not its superior. Here a wide dynamic range and variety of colour, particularly from the piano, completely banished any sense of repetition and revealed it unequivocally as one of the masterpieces of the repertoire .

By Friday evening, I have to confess to suffering slightly from overload. I welcomed greatly the Musgrave Medley which opened the concert and which illustrated yet again the liveliness and range of this composer in music which engaged the majority of the ensemble and which had been written mostly for an occasion. Before playing his piece Dawn the Music Director had read out part of an address the composer made when receiving an award. In this she had underlined the vital importance of music to us all. In her roll call of composers she finished with Britten and I recalled that composer in a similar situation when receiving a prize at Aspen in  America in the 1960’s saying that he wanted his music above all to be useful. I thought at the time how admirable this was, a great composer not writing music for posterity but for the present. Listening to this medley I thought it displayed very much the same intention and that in those pieces written for occasions how delighted the recipients must have been to have them commemorated /noted in music of such invention, directness, descriptive power and wit. Prelude from Variations for Judith made a particularly strong impression.

Suite for cello and piano by the Russian born Lera Auerbach and vividly played by Aznavoorian and Gvetadze began by making an equally strong impression. This was music that spoke clearly and dramatically in the style of 20c. Russian music. However, probably the result of fatigue, and it being a first hearing, I found myself increasingly noting its accomplishment rather than its individuality. In terms of memorability it was the superb performances of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev by Gvetadze that followed which compelled my attention. She had all the power demanded of this music but she also coaxed out of the piano the most exquisite singing tone in the treble. The same could be said for the performance by Lee and Apekisheva of Fritz Kreisler’s rendering of the tune from ‘Brief Encounter’!

It was a long, long concert but it says something for the artists of the evening that joined by Elschenbroich they still managed to rise to the challenge of a Dvorak masterpiece, the Piano Quintet Op.81 . However many times I have heard this in the Gallery, and it has been a few times, I never fail to be bowled over by the beauty and invention of this work. It was a magnificently vivid performance and again we were all sent on our way out into New Walk with the music singing in our heads.

And so to the last day. I gather that the Pied Pipers of Hamelin did their work splendidly at midday, being overwhelmed by the children of Leicester and that they duly returned them all safely to their parents at the end. Afterwards the last evening concert set the seal on a superb Festival. It was fitting that the proceedings should have begun with a Musgrave piece entitled Snapshots. This was written as a competition test piece but in a mixture of seriousness and impishness the composer had just written the notes and left off any other indications usually found on a score in order to emphasise amongst other things that in the performance of any work worth its salt there are many ,many ways to bell the cat.  Oh, those critics who shake their heads over ‘wrong’ interpretations! They belong to what I call the ‘you should have heard how so and so did it’ brigade. Whatever, the work emerged in Apekishiva’s performance as utterly characteristic of a composer whose presence in Leicester with her husband throughout the festival added such life and fun to the proceedings.

There followed just about the most electric and fervent performance of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata that I have ever heard. Elschenbroich and Apekisheva dug so deep to reveal the treasures of this work ( Has any work in the repertoire more memorable melodies?) that one felt how absurd was the comment quoted in the festival booklet about the composer’s music. Here one feared the cello might well self combust so pushed to the extremes of feeling was the music and as for the pianist, well she matched her partner in passion.

It was just as well that the interval came after that. Afterwards Auerbach’s transcription for oboe of Prokofiev’s Flute sonata cooled things down a bit. Realised by Daniel, Aznavoorian and Apekisheva it was full of the composer’s characteristic blend of edgy lyricism and sardonic wit and made an exactly right preparation for the last work, Dvorak’s Wind Serenade Op.44 , one of the composer’s sunniest works, and that is saying something! It was played by what remained of the Festival Ensemble with a major addition of Brits in the shape of the old friends of The Haffner Wind Ensemble. Sometimes in the past massed wind music in the gallery has been rather wearingly too much in your face. Whether because of Dvorak’s scoring or because of the players’ understanding  of the dynamics needed to transmit in this space the serenading qualities of the music, all that can be said is that it was a delight from beginning to end and made a fitting conclusion to yet another vintage Festival. The audience rightly cheered the musicians to the echo. We are much in their debt, in particular to Nicholas Daniel who year after year engineers music making of such pristine quality.

 

News

The Lunchtime series begins anew with The Britten Oboe Quartet on Thurs. October 11th 1.00 p.m  at The New Walk Museum . Sadly the diarist will be on holiday recovering from the festival but will have returned for the visit of the clarinettist Julian Bliss on October 25th at the same venue and at the same time.

On the following day October 26th we have the first of the season’s concerts given by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the De Montfort Hall starting at 7.30 p.m. There look to be some exceptionally fine concerts this season, but more of that anon.

 

 

Yevgeny Sudbin, LIMF Piano Recital – The Museum, June 23rd 2018

The Summer Piano Recital put on by the Leicester International Muisc Festival was this year a real Spectacular. It was given by the Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, who has been domiciled in the UK for a number of years and who has built a formidable career since then. From this his first appearance in the city, one could see precisely why this has been the case.

To be honest, I had not been looking forward to the recital with quite the anticipation of previous years. I knew just one and a half of the works being played (Saint Saens Dance Macabre was naturally in a transcription) and had not heard the artist in performance or recording. Also in recent years I have tended to be rather sceptical about the latest Russian virtuoso to emerge to be  praised by the musical press for hammering the keyboard into submission with eye popping displays of musical fireworks. In the end, if that is all, my faculties tend to dull and eventually shut down.

Well , that most certainly did not occur in this recital. True there was plenty of amazing piano playing on display. Indeed it kept on coming. For instance, the second half of the recital began with a Nocturne by Scriabin written solely for the left hand in which if you shut your eyes such was the skill of composer and instrumentalist one would have sworn that it was written for both hands. The transcription of Dance Macabre completely erased any possibility of odious comparisons with the colours of the orchestral version so overwhelming was the impetus of the playing. However, the point to be made is that even in these works never did one feel that the pianist was tearing a passion to tatters. The sound in the former never hardened and the occasional lightness of wit in the latter was fully there in the performance.  In summary, then,  even in the most overtly virtuosic music artistry was felt to be at the centre of the performance.

In the first half, In Haydn’s Sonata No. 47 and in Beethoven’s Bagatelles op.126 this had been already was made absolutely clear. I had never heard either work . In regard to the Haydn this was not perhaps so surprising since, despite a number of front rank pianists espousing  the composer’s works for piano in recordings, they are still rarities in performance. On the evidence of this performance of this work they most certainly should not be. When played with the propulsive energy  that featured here, the work emerged as  music  that dramatically strained classical conventions. Indeed occasionally one felt one might have been listening to Beethoven. All this was helped by the wonderful classical clarity of the performance, the superb crispness of articulation coupled with occasional  delightful Haydnesque lightness of touch and wit.

This was carried over to the Beethoven. It was one of those moments in the concert hall where the performance was such that you wondered how was it possible that you had never heard this music before. Perhaps it is the title itself which suggests scraps from the master’s table.  However, as played here it was obvious that this was music that could not have been further from such a description. What particularly caught the attention was the breathtaking beauty of passages in No’s 4 and 5 where the pianist at times conjured a wonderfully liquid sound of velvet. In the more familiar territory of Chopin’s Ballade No.4 there was once again evidence of a startlingly  original musical mind shaping the music. I have heard more obviously poetic interpretations of this work but none which have shaped the drama of the piece more convincingly.

The same might no doubt be said of the performance of Scriabin’s 5th Sonata. However, I am afraid I must admit that I struggle to respond to this composer’s output at its most ambitious. As a literary person I decline to respond to what I discovered from a recording I own had prefaced  this sonata:                                                     I call  you to life, mysterious forces!

Drowned in the obscure depths

Of the creative spirit, timid

Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity.

How does one take such stuff seriously? Interestingly I found in the Gramophone archive of some years ago  this pianist remarking  when in an article discussing his famous recording of the Scriabin sonatas that he felt at times a trifle unnerved when  immersing himself in the composer’s fevered  world for any length of time. Normally, I admire the ambition of those who would  push back the frontiers, such as Scriabin’s contemporaries Debussy, Mahler and Stravinsky, all of whom  created an utterly distinctive and coherent sound world of their own. However,  I am afraid in Scriabin’s case I fail generally to respond to what sounds to me to be music of earth shattering  intentions which result all too often in  unmemorable  repetition and grandiose gesture. Alas, not even this fine artist, with all his pianistic powers, could on the night really persuade me otherwise.

Never mind , the recital was one to remember. It was summed up at the end with the pianist giving the piano a pat as a partner in what had been overall a fascinating journey of discovery.

 

 

News

 

Now we sign off until September, when comes what looks to me a truly exciting Leicester International Music Festival  of music written in The New World and featuring composers such as Dvorak,  Rachmaninov and Thea Musgrave. The latter,  who, after having gone to live in the USA in 1972, and who visited the Festival as composer in residence early in this century, is now 90. However, I am told that she hopes to travel to Leicester to hear some of her music performed. My memories of her music are that she is a major composer with a very individual personality, who also when she was here immersed herself in the Festival.

The Festival is from Sept 20th -22nd and is packed full with wonderful music played by front rank artists from around the globe. Details and also ways of booking are to be found on the Festival website. This is truly not an occasion to miss.

English Touring Opera, Curve- May 29th and 30th 2018

As an avid opera goer in London and elsewhere, I learnt some time ago also to look forward to the annual visit of the English Touring Opera to Leicester. Initially inclined to be sceptical about the standards possible in a touring company with a schedule that has them in Perth one week and in Exeter the next, I have often been left amazed about what can be achieved even in Grand Opera with minimal all purpose sets , a reduced orchestra and singers often at the beginning of a career. Any condescension could not have been more misplaced. What Leicester has seen every year since ETO started visiting Curve is at least in one of the offerings top grade performance standards of singing and production,  in works both from central and peripheral repertory. This is an opera company which needs no allowances to be made.

This year that was true without equivocation. Indeed, both evenings saw memorable things happening on stage. To be truthful, I approached the performance of The Marriage of Figaro with some trepidation since only last month I had heard a performance at ENO certain to stick in the memory as one of the best I had encountered anywhere. Amongst many things an extraordinary moving set that brilliantly brought to life the backstairs of a great house/palace and Lucy Crowe’s quite wonderful debut in the role of the Countess with singing of breathtakingly rich beauty made it a very special evening. I thought in particular that the singer taking that role with ETO would struggle to erase such fresh memories.

Well, the opening aria of Act 2 is known as just about the most testing opening for a singer that exists in opera and in truth Nadine Benjamin , whilst singing well, did not perhaps quite penetrate to the character’s sadness. However, as the evening progressed it became clear that this was a voice and a stage presence to be reckoned with. For example, she rose finely to the challenge of the great aria of Act 3 with its huge range of changing emotions.

With regard the set, though obviously constricted and static, it was used by the producer to considerable effect. Indeed, the movement within such a small space and the use of well placed doors had the effect of consistently concentrating the attention on what mattered. There was a real sense of detailed ensemble. For instance, the staging of the ending of Act 2 in its rightness and simplicity resulted for this viewer at least in an awareness of the wonder of this half hour or so of a musical genius at full tilt. Rarely have I felt the sense of a divine musical juggler relishing the task of keeping an ever increasing number of balls in the air. The stage picture and of course the singing and orchestral ensemble did the job to perfection.

As to the singing , the opera was strongly cast. Dawid Kimburg as the Count and Ross Ramgobin as Figaro both made strong impressions. The latter’s fine baritone was noted last year in Patience but the former was new to me. They both sang with rich tone and often with a fine line. Something in the programme suggested that it had been a production aim to play down the danger that can be found in the score. In voice this was really almost a good humoured aristocrat and a servant with few if any revolutionary intentions. There wasn’t much danger and edge to be sensed in either voice or assumption. To put the Count in a Restoration wig suggested more a moderately lecherous fop than a serial philanderer. Still it was all of a piece. You really did believe in the Countess’ forgiveness and a future for the marriage. ENO had her at the end leaving the stage with a suitcase. She did forgive her husband but had no desire to live with him any longer!

Elsewhere, Katherine Aitken was a delightful Cherubino, inhabiting the trouser role’s comic possibilities with relish but also conveying the agony of adolescence. All the minor roles were inhabited by singers who got beyond caricature to the feeling so omnipresent in this score. It is the first time that I have seen Antonio almost stop the show so wonderfully did Devin Harrison communicate the gardener’s outrage at people jumping out of windows onto his prized plants. However, for me the star of the cast was Rachel Redmond as Susannah. I have heard many sopranos like her in this role, with a sweet beguiling voice but few with the range of colour and line that seemed able to change dramatically the feeling of a scene in an instance. This singer could make Susanna a lovely cat that purred one moment, only for in the next instance the claws to be out. Couple this with the ability both in lively movement and expression to capture instantly the moment and an audience could see exactly why Figaro was head over heels in love with her. It was she who was the match for the Count. Finally, supporting all this was much fleet footed orchestral playing under conductor Christopher Stark, perhaps just occasionally a little too fleet . However, better that than things dragging and it was a pity that the conductor seemed to get lost in the depths of Curve and didn’t make it onto the stage. He deserved the plaudits for having presided musically over a fine ensemble achievement.

The next evening devoted to Puccini was equally satisfying. Il Tabarro is a big ask in a smallish theatre and with a reduced orchestra. However, it came over as the authentic thing with an amazing power of sound issuing from the orchestra under Michael Rosewell.  It is a powerful opera worthy of more recognition than it has had. Perhaps that is in part because it is a grim tale of a grim world. However, this world is painted in sometimes evocative and rich musical colours which once again point to what a master orchestrator Puccini was. Each of his operas has its unique sound world which is yet still immediately recognisable as his and his alone and the opera may be grim but it is full of heartstopping moments as this tale of poverty and people who are trapped in hopelessness unfolds.

Perhaps, one of the difficulties of staging it is that the world to which the characters of the opera do not belong is nevertheless an important element in the music. It is the Paris of the good life and in this production that this was completely another world was powerfully conveyed by a blank high iron barrier filling the back of the stage, beyond which was Paris. Hence, there was little actual glimpse of this other world beyond people and lovers passing high up in the set. In productions on a bigger stage some more tangible  sense of La Belle Paris can be achieved to  give a visual counterpart to the beauty of the sounds on occasions issuing from the orchestral pit. This tangible presence  of another world so close and yet so far can provide a instant and further turn of the dramatic screw .

However, that screw was often turned here to effect. The lovers played by Sarah Jane Lewis and Charne Rochford made a powerful duo. The latter sang his heart out ,his tenor oozing desperation. Indeed, on occasions one wondered whether he was not pushing the voice rather too hard. The former, however, rode the orchestra at times to superb effect and powerfully conveyed her desperate unhappiness throughout. Clarissa Meek gave her first brilliant cameo of the evening as Frugola the ragpicker who so encapsulates the reality of poverty as against the dream of a better life away from the drudgery and the fear for the future with an ill husband who can barely do the job of a stevedore. Over all this hovers the gruff presence of Michele, the rightly suspicious husband and father, mourning for his lost child and what he feels is the lost love of his wife. Craig Smith made both the sadness and the latent violence of the man palpable as he stalked around his barge and when the lighting of his pipe in the darkness ironically reveals his wife’s lover his eruption was felt to be truly shocking. Was it my imagination or was his voice in significantly better shape than last year in Tosca? Whatever, I found it a riveting performance.

And then Gianni Schicchi burst upon us with unforgettable and outrageous comic force. This was a triumph, reflecting the power a fine ensemble company can deliver. The farcical needs to be rendered with absolute precision of timing if it is not to fall flat. Here the bunch of grotesques painted like clowns which appeared before us in the shape of the grasping Donati family was a vision indeed worthy of Dante’s Hell . Set not in the Middle Ages but in early 20c. Italy, it seemed rather dreadfully pertinent given recent events in that country. Timothy Dawkins as Simone the ex mayor, wandering around with his flies half undone, set the tone. Clarissa Meeks as Zita, this time like some ancient female vulture, dominated the stage. In the middle of these horrors were the young lovers, not made up and blessedly human.

Then there was Schicchi himself, the self made man who also stood out amongst such ghastliness. Andrew Slater, without make up, with firm solid voice played him with almost aristocratic disdain for the grasping crowd around him, that is until he saw the opportunity of making a shekel or two at the expense of the dreadful family. There was almost a grimness about how he set out to dupe them. However, the finesse with which this production shoe horned Lauretta’s famous plea to Daddy into the opera’s world underlined something that had not registered with me quite so clearly before, that the daughter has inherited something of Daddy’s ability to manipulate. As sung by Galina Averina ,it was both heart rending and yet beautifully pertinent to Puccini’s ironic vision. Perhaps this depiction of the central figure lost a bit of the glee with which he puts the family to flight. There seemed more a sense of disgust than triumph in the way he kicked them out of what was now his house but the approach was in its own way hugely satisfying and one finished as one listened to the epilogue wondering more than is some other productions what Schicchi indeed had done to deserve his eternal dismissal at the hands of the poet. It was a perfect ending to a splendid two days of opera at Curve. Please do come again, in 2019!