The Philharmonia Friends’ Concert January 15th 2017- Domingo Hindoyan and Michael Barenboim

The Philharmonia Residency opened 2017 with a concert featuring two artists new to the city, Domingo Hindoyan, the Venezuelan/ Swiss conductor, and the violinist Michael Barenboim. Both are centred in Germany but already have flourishing international careers and one can see why on the evidence of this concert.

It is a great pleasure to find the son of a famous father exhibiting a very individual musical personality, which on this limited evidence seemed to convey quiet confidence and a determination to seek out the centre of a piece of music. In his performance of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, it was immediately clear that there was going to be no attempt to emulate the big sound of some Russian virtuosi. The quiet lyrical opening to the concerto was very quiet indeed and the  movement’s brittle  middle section perhaps might be thought by some to have  lacked the last degree of panache. However, the advantage of this approach, the warmth of tone and the musicality of the phrasing, made one sharply aware of just how lyrically rich is much of the material of this concerto, both here and in the third movement. Often the violin truly sings. Even the brilliant Scherzo is not the composer at his most sarcastic and Barenboim extracted its wit and good humour in a way that more overtly virtuosic in your face performances do not always achieve. One finished by thinking, as the work drew to its quietly beautiful ending with violin followed by flute , that one had heard a performance which indicated a profound understanding of the concerto and one that revealed much of its heart.

The purely orchestral items in the concert made an equally positive impression. Indeed, the concert could not have got off to a more striking start than in the performance of Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman . How wonderful, I thought, to be back to the time when almost every concert began with a wake up call from a spanking overture. Here, in the body of the hall, its fine acoustic ensured that the strings and brass enveloped one in a veritable tempest of sound and by the end of it the only disappointment was that the opera was not to follow.( Writing of acoustics,  I gather the next Philharmonia concert ( Wed. February 15th) is being broadcast live by the BBC, perhaps London re-discovering after many decades that there is just up the railway line another Midlands concert hall acoustically superior to either of the main London venues.)

As to the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in the autumn of life it is so easy to play what I call ‘the Legendary Conductor Hand’ which starts with ‘Ah, but you should have heard Klemperer, Karajan and Uncle Tom Cobley and all’, with which all intelligent conversation stops. However, for me, and perhaps for some others in the hall, the problem is that there is a very recent memory, just five years ago, of Esa-Pekka Salonen giving with this his orchestra a performance of this very same symphony which was the equivalent of seeing some vintage car restored to its pristine original state. It had an unforgettably  brazen and fiery quality, often swift speeds and yet never seeming to lose the many  beauties of the score. I heard it twice, once in Leicester and later in Bonn. In the latter venue, after the last chord the whole audience as a body immediately rose to their feet and cheered. I had never experienced anything like it and a member of the orchestra remarked afterwards that it had never happened in his experience of German concerts, where audiences tend to be somewhat reserved.

So, even before the baton was raised to introduce the supposed ‘fate’ motif ( about which the programme delightfully brought to our attention Czerny’s belief that it  was stirred in the composer’s mind by the call of a small bird! ) , the conductor had a problem with at least one member of the audience. Yet, for all that, in its own terms this was a fine interpretation. Those terms  tended to be within the German tradition, in other words with sonorous brass , a weighty and warm body of strings, mostly mellifluous woodwind. Of course, since the 1950’s this orchestra in particular has a long tradition of delivering that sort of sound and it gave a fine eloquence to the interpretation. Early on I could have done with more of a frisson but the andante was both memorably beautiful in places and dramatic at other times. I would have preferred the scherzo to be slightly faster at first but clearly the conductor had taken the long view because the contrast with the wonderful passage for double basses and cellos was truly startling. In the novel Howard’s End occurs the most famous description in fiction of this movement of the symphony.  Forster at this point has the heroine thinking that it brought visions of goblins being banished by dancing elephants! All one can say is that these elephants were remarkably nimble on their feet.  I wondered whether that might perhaps be an interesting indication of just how orchestral standards have risen since the early part of the last century.

Whatever, this part of the symphony, leading up as it does to that extraordinary transition to the blazing opening of the last movement, was very finely done indeed and the performance as a whole drove on to a splendid feeling of triumphant release at the end. Indeed, looking back over the whole performance, I realised that one of its strengths had been the management of the many transitions, no doubt the result of time spent in careful rehearsal. One looks forward to hearing Domingo Hindoyan again.

First concert of 2017 at the Museum: Alexander Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian

January 12th 2017. A grim, cold January morning with snow threatened. As one trudged through Leicester and arrived at the Museum for the first 2017 concert in the Lunchtime Series only to find that, because of major building work, one needed an orienteering course just to get in, one had the occasional unworthy thought about whether it was all quite worth the effort. That was until the first note, after which such thoughts were completely banished.

Of course, one should not have had such thoughts in the first place. Anyone who has frequented the Festival and the Lunchtime Series over the years knows just how superb a violinist is Alexander Sitkovetsky . True, his partner Wu Qian, as far as I am aware, was new to the city, but it took very little time to discern that she was here not in some subsidiary accompanying role. This was a Duo in the real meaning of the word and of the very topmost quality.

Given the Arctic outside, De Falla’s Suite of Spanish Songs was a particularly happy choice with which to begin. It was a transcription of a vocal work which in the original immediately conjures up the unique sounds of the Spanish deep,  sometimes guttural , mezzo voice . However, the violin stood in remarkably well for the singer. Sitkovetsky’s wonderfully rich tone and range of colour time and again took one right to the Iberian centre of these pulsating songs and the piano of course had no difficulty in conveying the dance rhythms with great vivacity. However, perhaps the most memorable song of all was Lullaby , the quietest, least demonstrative of the selection. This was a thing of wonder as the two artists ever so gently conveyed the love of a mother for her child. Here one felt the purity of violin and piano tone almost made the transcription superior to the original.

Then we moved onto the major work of the concert, Schumann’s Violin Sonata Op. 120, composed as the signs of the composer’s final breakdown were beginning to show. For me this has always been a slightly problematic work, particularly in the outer movements, which in the determination of the composer to be dramatic and weighty can in an ordinary performance begin to sound endlessly repetitive. Whilst replaying recently a much praised CD of the 1980’s by two artists recognised as amongst the very finest of their generation, I found that even then my uncertainties did not entirely vanish.

And yet in this performance that is exactly what did occur. One is aware that one should be very cautious of comparing any recording with a live experience. The latter has the potential to be so much more involving. Distrust those critics who in those circumstances adopt a superior analytic tone. However, I did think that I detected in this performance good reason why the sense of repetitiveness was absent. Particularly in the last movement, the players seemed to manage through a number of subtle variations of tempo and tone to make each re-introduction of material seem a slight departure from what had gone before. Hence the movement had throughout the dramatic impetus which Schumann had in mind.

As for the poignant slow movement in which the composer finds again the blithe lyricism so much at the centre of his genius, it was played in a manner that brought tears to the eyes. During those few moments I found myself wondering whether there existed a more touching testament to the human spirit. How did someone on the verge of permanent mental collapse find their way to creating music so utterly and heartrendingly lovely? That one had these thoughts was a tribute indeed to the quality of these two players.




Coming Events in January


Tuesday January 17th.7.30 p.m:   The Philharmonia residency  at DMH.  The Venezuelan Conductor Domingo Hindoyanmakes his debut inLeicester, as does the violinist Michael Barenboim, son of Daniel. A programme of Wagner, Prokofiev and Beethoven.


Thursday January 26th. 1.00 p.m: Lunchtime Series at the Museum. The long awaited return to the city of cellist Natalie Clein. She will be playing two of Bach’s Cello Suites.



Brass and Four Hands

The last three concerts of 2016 in the Lunchtime Series at the New Walk Museum had one thing in common; they were not of the usual chamber music instrumental formats. At the end of November, the harp was featured. In early December the audience was entertained by the Guildhall Elysium Brass Ensemble.

This ensemble was made up of five young instrumentalists, all presently studying at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Immediately, in an opening Fanfare by Dukas they made their credentials plain. Some years ago, as Brass Bands seemed to be on the decline, there was much worry about the effect this might have on the standard of brass playing in British orchestras. Well ,if the standard of this group is anything to go by, there is little reason for such gloom. The playing of these young musicians had a confidence and vivacity which was utterly winning and which made the hour slide by very quickly.

This was quite an achievement in the circumstances since, for this listener at least, the pleasure brass groups give can swiftly pall, particularly in a small enclosed space. In such a space, one felt that it was difficult to convey a dynamic range much wider than the very loud to the less loud, down to the not so loud. Also, some of the music did not enthral. Ewald’s Brass Quintet at its most Russian had some character . The Adagio on a first hearing was the movement which caught my ear. Elsewhere, however, it seemed to me to be in the main a curiosity.

The same I fear could be said about the brass arrangement of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. It is undoubtedly a feat to arrange such a piano piece for brass but  Samuel Johnson’s famous quip about dogs walking on two legs came irresistibly to mind, “ that it is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.” In this instant the lovely Scottish lass of Debussy’s tender and  delicate vision became more akin to a matron digging potatoes.

However, other arrangements were much, much more successful. Tudor music in all its stateliness started the main part of the concert in grand style. Gerswhin’s A Foggy Day  was given a finely improvisatory and jazzy rendering and the wistful  quality of wartime A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square brought out all appropriate nostalgic goose bumps, at least for this elderly bloke. What a lovely melody and lyric this is. And then the concert finished with one of Malcolm Arnold’s wonderfully rumbustious arrangements of Sea Shanties for wind instruments. The programme suggested we were going to get three. The audience, one felt, would have quite happily listened to the other two such a splendid finale was it to a spirited concert.

A fortnight later as I listened to the concert given by the two pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen, two memories came to mind. Firstly, I recalled the occasion when a few years ago they had brought a Leicester International Festival to a conclusion with Stravinsky’s own transcription for four hands  of The Rite of Spring , in  a performance so dynamic that one wondered whether the transcription wasn’t  superior in some ways to the orchestral version. This performance has since been committed to disc, to great acclaim. The second memory, however, was even more pertinent. It was of the Russian pianist Richter playing with Benjamin Britten one of Schubert’s pieces for two pianos, in which two of the greatest musicians of the 20c were taking delight in each other’s wonderful musicianship but above all else in the wonders of the music they were playing.

That was the atmosphere of this concert. Right from the very start in Poulenc’s Sonata, the clarity, the verve of the outer movements and the very Gallic quiet beauty of the slow movement, all was fully realised in a splendidly wake up start to the concert. However, it was in Debussy’s Petite Suite where one’s critical faculties told one that one was listening to something very special. This work had been heard in a summer concert in a performance that I had found frankly disappointing, so heavy handed did it seem. As always, one wondered whether, as an explanation for such dyspeptic feelings, you the listener might have had rather too much to eat. However, in truth the performance of this duo revealed all that I thought ought to have been there and wasn’t. Right from the beginning in the lovely En Beateau this performance had all the lightness of touch and charm the music requires. It was simply enchanting.

In contrast, in the last two pieces, Ravel’s own version of the Rapsodie Espagnole and a version of The Nutcracker Suite, perhaps at times in a not entirely convincing transcription, the virtuosity in combination of these two front rank artists was simply astonishing. The kaleidoscopic showers of notes particularly in the treble were unforgettable and yet the final feeling at the end of the concert was that one had been party to classical music’s equivalent of a jazz jam session, so spontaneous was everything made to feel. One felt it was a privilege to be at such an occasion and that it signed off 2016 in the most memorable fashion possible.

Two Pre-Christmas Gifts

Leicester Music Society Tues. 13th. December.

The distinguished baritone Stephen Varcoe delivers a talk on the music of Gerald Finzi. In his immense discography, the singer has made some memorable CD’s of the composer’s work so it should be an evening of great insight. Visitors are very welcome.  Clarendon Park Congregational  Church, Springfield Rd., off London Rd. 19.30

Lunchtime Concerts Thurs. 15th.December.

Katya Apekishiva  and Charles Owen play a programme of piano music written or arranged for 4 hands. In recent years this duo have given concerts and released recordings of this repertoire, all of which have been received with great acclaim. It should make a fine musical ending to 2016. New Walk Museum 13.00


The Philharmonia November 30th

The other night I was watching a TV programme about the terrifying power of electrical storms which trigger lightning. At times one felt that this concert conducted by Nicholas Collon was the musical equivalent of being struck by a bolt from the sky. If nothing else, it re-inforced the conductor’s reputation not least for insightful  programming of works both different and connected. Here we began with Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, proceeded to Ravel, the former’s short time teacher,  and finished with Walton’s First Symphony, itself influenced, amongst much else,  by things French.

It might be thought in this company that the VW’s piece was the odd man out yet in this performance it was so much more than a serene trip around the cathedral. It was true that the sense of space in the antiphonal moments between the two string orchestras was well realised. This can be difficult to render in the concert hall but the placing of the smaller body of strings to far stage left did give at moments the sense of infinite space. However, also wonderfully communicated were the moments of rich passion in the work. The orchestra’s leader Sarah Oates’ moment or two in the spotlight were especially memorable in this respect but the DMH acoustic gave the whole body of strings opportunities to glow and one gasped at the wonder of what the composer felt to be his new found powers of orchestration as a result of his time with Ravel. By the end of this performance I found myself thinking that no-one had composed anything more beautiful than this work.

Which made what sounds like the electric crack at the opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G all the more of a contrast. On the face of it, the brittle and witty jazziness of much of this work could hardly be more different to what had preceded it and, in his welcome return to Leicester, the Swiss  Francesco Piemontesi  gave such features their full due. In its light and beautifully clear tone the Fazioli piano was the ideal instrument for the work. The pianist in the slow movement  also ensured that the instrument conveyed the uniquely French kind of limpid beauty that  Ravel was inspired to create here. It was just rather a pity , when at the end of the movement in the sheerly lovely moment when the cor anglais takes over the melody  and the piano simply embellishes it, that Odette Cotton’s  fine playing was slightly recessed as a result of her being sat directly behind the piano lid. Hence,  the sense of a divine duo was rather lost in the body of the hall. Whatever, it was a fine performance and sent one out at the interval musically refreshed.

Nothing so far, though, had quite prepared one for the visceral impact of the Walton Symphony. To continue the metaphor, this was like being in the middle of the electrical storm. Later I wondered why I had not heard this great work in the concert hall for decades. Could it be more than simple co-incidence, I wondered? Certainly it makes huge demands on an orchestra and no doubt still, 80 years on, rehearsal time. It is not simply the staying power demanded of such sections as the brass but perhaps more importantly the utmost finesse which is required to deliver such things as the needle sharp shifts of rhythm and sudden and witty changes in direction, all this coupled with at the other extreme what became increasingly important in Walton’s music, the rich vein of the romantic , like Ravel never lush but coolly beautiful. Well, as one might expect of this great orchestra, the Philharmonia and Collon delivered all of this on the epic  journey.

At the end there was an extraordinary moment. Last month we heard Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with its famous isolated chords of an ending which have been known to bring applause before the true end. Walton obviously thought that a good idea. The second movement has a false ending, almost Haydnesque. Then at the end Walton copies Sibelius, albeit with chords that are sharp cracks rather than anything mighty and weighty.  And then there was silence in the Hall! Given that the audience had not quite allowed the moment of reflection that the conductor was looking for at the ending of the Vaughan Williams, this was weird. For an awful moment, I thought Leicester was rejecting Walton. Then began below the characteristic stamping of feet followed by great applause and  I realised, in the last example of the extended metaphor, that perhaps most of the audience had felt as if they had been struck by lightning and for a moment were just simply stunned. A most memorable concert indeed.

Lunchtime Series 2016/17 Concert 4

Chroma 17th.Nov 2016

There are some concerts which look intriguing on paper and such a one was that given by the chamber group Chroma in the Lunchtime Series and centred entirely on music for the harp and strings. The Museum has in the past played host to the occasional Harp recital but a complete concert of ensemble pieces featuring the instrument was new to me.  So it has to be said was the music.  Indeed, Ravel’s wonderful  Introduction and Allegro and Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto are about the sum total of my concert experience of the harp in a concertante role.

Sadly, whilst grateful for the opportunity, I have to admit to the prospect having been more interesting than the reality. Despite there being clearly three fine musicians on the platform, the concert as a whole rarely sent the blood racing. Of course, one has to be wary about judging music on a first hearing but the fact remains that in all honesty much of it seemed to me perfectly easy on the ear  but also largely unmemorable.  Ibert’s Trio was, well, quintessential  Ibert, that is witty in places, relentlessly bouncy and smart but in the end, to my ears at least, largely predictable. His and, with the major exception of Poulenc, most of the music of Les Six sounds to me these days as stuck in a time warp. It’s like being trapped at a party in the company of a relentless Wit.

Clearly Henriette Renié’s Trio had different intentions. I had never come across her name before, never mind her music. Helen Sharp, the harpist, gave a rather sad description of the buttoned up nature of Renié’s day and of her life. The internet revealed the degree to which she was revered as a harp player and as someone who over a long life finishing in the 1950’s had had a great influence on the development of the instrument, and all this despite continual ill health. Her composition had its moments. The Andante was the most characterful movement in which the strings in particular had a theme that achieved some lyrical beauty. In the work as a whole, though, an individual voice seemed to emerge rarely and there appeared to be  much rather repetitive working out of what seemed to me often very short winded material.

That left Saint –Saëns’ Fantaisie for violin and harp, which rather ironically was the stand out work in the concert. I say ‘ironically’ because ,since being lionised in the last part of the 19c, until recently this composer’s music has been regarded by ‘serious’ concertgoers as facile. That view is perhaps changing  and in this work one could see why.  This was beautifully written music of  genuinely individual substance, not facile at all in fact unless by facile one means having  a seemingly effortless lyrical gift. In addition the range and shifts of colour constantly engaged the ear in this fine performance.

Finally, the success of this particular work in the concert raised another rather interesting issue. One wondered whether it was coincidental that it was written for one stringed instrument and harp. Elsewhere in the concert, the harp seemed often lost in the string sound. Indeed, at times the huge instrument might just as well not have been on the platform at all. One wondered whether one’s view of the Trios might been more positive  if the placing of the instruments on the platform had been different and hence the harp possibly more present. Putting the latter end on to the audience and in particular almost completely behind the violin and cello seemed to do the instrument no favours at all. Perhaps the truth is that it will always struggle to penetrate when pitted against the sound of more forthright instruments. It was possibly a straw in the wind that Renié apparently wrote her work with a piano part as an alternative to the harp.



Philharmonia- The Lord Mayor’s Concert, November 11th 2016

Before the concert the Lord Mayor in a speech requested the audience to support his Appeal, which this year is for the Leicester Children’s Holiday Centre at Mablethorpe. During his short address, in which he also lavished praise on the difference the Philharmonia Orchestra had made to many aspects of music in the city, it occurred to me , particularly in an age in which it is popular, often  amongst people who have never raised a hand to help the community, to declare all politicians to be self serving incompetents, that the City Council deserves great praise for the way over 20 years they have steadfastly supported cultural events which serve not only the city but wider Leicestershire  as well.  Without that support, the city and its environs would be indeed a very much poorer place in which to live.

Now to musical matters and another concert and two more Leicester debuts, those of the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and, as a conductor, the Spaniard Jaime Martin. The latter has been to the city before but in the role of one of the most eminent flautists of the present day. Now, though, he is carving out a career as a conductor and is attracting plaudits from orchestras world wide. Baiba Skride is no stranger to the Midlands, playing on a number of occasions in that city down the road where her fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons presided until recently.

In the event the reputations they brought with them were shown to be more than justified. Indeed, I would say Baiba Skride’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto was one of the most  sheerly beautiful that I have heard. Not for her the big warm sound beloved of some performers, which in this concerto can result after a while in a kind of blowsiness,  producing a feeling  akin to having eaten a box of chocolates at one go. She on the other hand produced a radiantly pure silver sound and often refined that sound down to the quietest of quiet pianissimos. There were some unforgettable moments.  In the opening movement there was one such moment when time seemed to stop as one listened to the softest of blendings between soloist , woodwind and horns. The latter were on wonderful form throughout the evening.  Similar moments occurred in the slow movement and the gipsy material of the last movement skipped so lightly that the virtuosity was almost unnoticed. The whole performance was, with an ever attentive and lovingly shaped accompaniment, like seeing an old master stripped of its varnish and revealed in its primary colours.

In the rest of the programme the conductor also showed himself to be a fine musician, able to get a crack orchestra to play at the top of its form. I found it pleasing that Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, even though the composer declined to use it for the opera, went at a pace which reflected the drama instead of being presented as some deeply philosophic  pondering on humanity. The frisson of the trumpet  announcing the arrival of the Minister in the nick of time was finely conveyed and the outburst of joy at the end of the piece was suitably schnell.

After the interval the performance of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony seemed to take some time to get in the groove. It was being played well enough but it was coming across as rather matter of fact . The characteristic Sibelian atmosphere of brooding mystery and threatening  granite like power wasn’t being quite communicated, to this listener at least. However, with the introduction of the first of those wonderful swinging themes on the brass so characteristic of this symphony, something seemed to click and from then on the performance really gripped. There was heroic power  in the brass and the strings took on a dark intensity which sent shivers up the spine. Don’t go into the forest, was the message conveyed. In the slow movement the moments of cool and graceful beauty were finely conveyed  by the woodwind and the guest appearance of the retired Andy Smith ensured that the timpani’s role in the work’s  grandeur and drama was fully realised.

However, the standout moment for me was in the last movement and the return sotto voce of the scurrying theme for full strings with which the movement opens. It was truly amazing the extreme pianissimo achieved by such a body of players, and the way it almost disappeared  and then came back, building to one of most overwhelming  near endings in symphonic music, was unforgettable. I say ‘near endings’, since, of course, we have at the actual end those series of enigmatic, brusque chords, almost waiting to catch out the audience. The conductor during the pre –concert talk told of a performance given in Athens under Colin Davis some years ago, in which the pause after each chord brought premature applause until, by the real end, when applause was merited, there was none since none dared any longer to put their hands together. I am delighted to report that Leicester, it would appear, knows its Sibelius rather better than the cradle of Western Civilisation. Certainly Jaime Martin does and we should indeed look forward to his return.


Lunchtime Concerts 2016/2017 2 and 3

Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen 20th October 2016

After their triumphs in the Festival I looked forward with surprisingly modified rapture to the swift return to the city of those fine artists Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen for the second concert of the Lunchtime Series. This featured Bach, Rubbra and Schumann.

We all hear music differently and we all have preferences but, when referring to the two greatest of composers of the first part of the 18c. and declaring my preference for Handel, I have been in the past subject to withering glances. Of course, I realise that Bach is worshipped like few other composers by people whose judgements are to be mightily respected and as it happens I do enjoy many of the master’s works. However,I have come to realise that colour and direct human drama are often central to my enjoyment. In a way Bach is perfect but too often in performance I seem aware of the wonders of a world akin to mathematics, a world which I struggle to enter, of a great mind exploring all the possibilities of musical material. I remember Raymond Leppard , who long ago pioneered the revival of an interest in Baroque Opera,  once on television exploring a Bach work and at one moment  in his inimitably wry manner remarking that Bach being Bach could not leave well alone.

In the 20c Edmund Rubbra presents me with similar problems. At one point I bought a number of CD’s of his symphonies and chamber works and was at times impressed, but it passed. Something about the music’s intense seriousness made it pall and recently, whilst reading a CD booklet, the reason became clear to me. The composer went on record as seeing colour as a secondary feature of music and a dense highly wrought structure as crucial to significant achievement.  This for me results in a palette that is quite often beautiful but with too little dramatic variety.

And yet in this concert things turned out rather differently, not least because it showed how two great artists can transform the listening experience. Rubbra’s Oboe Sonata, perhaps because of the pre-eminence of the bright wood wind, sounded quite unlike anything else I had heard of his. It has something of the composer’s luminosity but also a clarity and bounce not always found in his music. The slow movement had a limpid quality and the last movement an ear catching vivacity. One wonders whether the well known sparkling personality of its dedicatee, Evelyn Rothwell, had something to do with the nature of this music.

Schumann’s Three Romances is the composer at his most intimate. No musician has given greater luminosity to the domestic life and in a  loving and affectionate performance both artists took one into the centre of that personal world.

And so to Bach, who book ended the concert with two sonatas. Here pleasure was complete. One was struck by the fact that , perhaps like Mozart, Bach is one of the composers most difficult to get right in the playing. Some performances concern themselves with lucid structure and finish up sounding like a metronome. Others import an alien expressiveness  which sounds and is false. Both artists here managed to find a middle way which was compelling. Charles Owen is an artist always seeking to be as true to the composer’s world as he can be and here he managed to combine a  clarity with inflections which gave the music a dancing vibrant life. Nicholas Daniel simply dazzled in his ability at times to send a phrase floating in the air like a feather without impeding the flow one bit. Quite astonishing.  I think I still prefer Handel  but..!




Lendvai String Trio November 3rd.2016

Not having come across this group before, I assumed that they would be playing in the Leicester Lunchtime series for the first time. Diligent research, however, revealed that two members were also part of the fine Aronovitz Ensemble and hence no strangers to the city at all. Another reason why String Trio groups are rarely household names was revealed by the cellist of the Trio , Marie Macleod, when she remarked that the form had never been very popular amongst eminent composers and hence the repertoire was limited. Interestingly she thought this might be because the form was more difficult to write for than the quartet and she suggested that one reason could be that with four instruments the harmonic base could be provided by three, leaving the fourth to do ear- catching things!

On the evidence of this concert she would seem to have a point in that only a great composer at full throttle would seem able to grab the attention. Now, Schubert is a great composer yet there really was little in his early String Trio to make you guess such to be the case. Much of the music seemed clearly designed for pleasant evenings with friends and in this perfectly well mannered music one could only occasionally guess what mighty stuff was to come. Once in the second movement there was a passage that broke through to much deeper things and the last movement had a blithe tune which had all the Schubertian fingerprints. The Lendvai Trio played it all   with great affection and style. However, it was in the Beethoven Opus 3 that their quality as an ensemble really shone through.

Here they were really splendid in the way in which they were ever alert to the mercurial qualities of this extraordinary work. I had forgotten just how extraordinary it was. Significant composers’ early works are often viewed as the precursors of the great things to come. Here Beethoven has already broken the mould of the Age of Enlightenment. Good manners are thrown out of the window. The work is full of challenging stops and then dartings off in completely unexpected directions.   Mischievousness, lyricism  and fierce energy  sit side by side. The Ledvai String Trio managed these challenges with great artistry. Time and again the range of the dynamics finely characterised the changes in atmosphere , their playing had great rhythmic impetus and where, as in the slow movement, they were required to sing out, the tonal blend was at times superbly rich. They had the complete measure of Beethoven’s early masterpiece.


Coming Events.

November 8th.  James Murray comes to talk to The Leicester Music Society about the German 19c. composer Albert Lortzing.  7.30 Clarendon Park Congregational Church, Springfield Road.

November 11th. The Philharmonia is in town with the Spaniard Jaime Martin, making his debut in the city as a conductor in a programme of Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. The fine Latvian violinist Balba Skride is the soloist in the Brahms concerto.  7.30 DMH

November 17thChroma will be playing French works for strings and harp. 1.00 The New Walk Museum.


Philharmonia 20th Anniversary Concert DMH October 2016

The 1990’s saw some classical music initiatives in Leicester which to this day have had a very significant effect on the quality of the music making in the city. One of these initiatives led to the gradual embedding with no little struggle of the Leicester International Festival, which in time resulted in the New Walk Museum Lunchtime Concert Series attaining a similar stellar quality of chamber music  making.

And then, wonders of wonders, in 1996 one of the world’s great orchestras, The Philharmonia,  reached an agreement with the City Council to set up a residency in the city, giving each year a number of concerts, most of which would be the same as those performed in London.  Not only that, but the orchestra also committed itself to education projects in the city. The outward manifestation of these became in time the Orchestra Unwrapped scheme. The numbers involved have been quite stunning. Since 2011 the orchestra has given concerts to over 15,5000 Leicester school children between the ages of 7 and 11 and every adult that I have known who has gained entry to one of these concerts has come away both moved and astonished. So, the city and the orchestra have really something to celebrate and that was done in style at the opening concert of the 2016/ 2017 Season.

Not that everything went according to plan for this celebratory occasion. A famous veteran  Russian Conductor had to withdraw, to be replaced by a young British conductor, Ben Gernon. On the face of it some might have thought that hardly a quid pro quo. Alas, there always has been  the assumption amongst a number of concertgoers that great conductors are the product of aging, that the slower a conductor is to the podium, the finer the interpretation there will be on arrival.  As one of the grey hairs myself, I have become increasingly impatient with such condescension towards the young and fit.  Like everything in life, there is often loss as well as gain. Sometimes I have felt  that in regard conducting aged ‘wisdom’ can come at a price, with a loss of the voltage that goes with youth and discovery. Also, it is nonsense to assume that that which is exciting  and sprightly is superficial and that which is slow, sometimes bordering on the soporific, necessarily delves deep. In addition this orchestra’s track record for searching out young talent is second to none. They gave their present day chief conductor his first chance in London in the 1980’s and Leicester in recent times has heard a number of fine conducting debuts. On the evidence of this concert, Britain has yet another great emerging talent.

Firstly, though, one must take one’s hat off to the Armenian violinist, Sergey Khatchatryan, who gave a phenomenal performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. I remember sometime ago hearing with surprise a violinist suggesting that this concerto was to be avoided as it was the most draining in the repertoire. This performance certainly conveyed how unremitting are its demands, not least because this artist met all of those demands head on. The range of tone and dynamics he achieved was quite stunning. He has an extraordinarily rich tone in the lower registers and can spin the most magical of pianissimos and yet was rarely drowned by the orchestra when Sibelius seems to think he is writing his Symphony 2.5. One extraordinary moment was at the end of the slow movement when the violinist  looked for a moment like a boxer just about to throw in the towel, only the next minute to launch with rich vibrancy and drive into the final movement’s  opening  theme as if embarking freshly on a 100 metre sprint.

Perforce, up to the interval Gernon had played a relatively secondary role as accompanist and in a performance of Glazunov’s Valse de Concert. Even here, though, in what to this listener tends to remind one how much more memorably Johann Strauss handles the form, he shaped the detail with such musicality and elan as to make one almost forget such thoughts. In the Sibelius, he matched the soloist in the frequent and often dramatic moments when the orchestra takes centre stage, eliciting at times a wonderfully dark sound from the orchestra.

And that spilled over into Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Curiously it is a long time since I have heard this war horse in the concert hall and this performance reminded me that a piece reaches war horse status for good reasons. When performed as it was here, it is a work that delivers a tremendous clout. But, of course, a performance needs to register also its frequent moments of beauty, even elegance, as in the third movement, and Gernon to my mind shaped that very finely . Indeed the whole performance gave the impression of clear vision and control. This was not a symphony bordering too often on excitable hysteria but one of tragic vision. So, when in the middle of the last movement Gernon let the horse loose, the gallop was absolutely irresistible, certainly when played, as here, by the strings in particular with hair raising attack. Hence the final peroration brought the performance to a spine tingling but finely gauged dramatic end. Throughout the orchestra seemed in fine form. One wondered at moments whether the woodwind section with a number of guest principals had quite its usual distinctive blend but overall ,particularly in the sumptuous strings, this seemed the  vintage Philharmonia the occasion demanded. Also, one very much hopes to hear more of Ben Gernon , perhaps this time in a programme of choice.

Chiaroscura Quartet- LIMF New Walk Museum October 2016

One of the reasons why live concert going is so intriguing is that expectations are sometimes not realised and also that not infrequently something quite unexpected and every bit as worthy of attention occurs in the place of those expectations. Such happened when, in a Mozart ,Schubert  programme played on gut strings, the Chiaroscuro Quartet made its debut in Leicester at the opening concert of the 2016/17 Museum Lunchtime Series. As it happened, another Quartet, , the Quattuor Mosaique, famed over many years also for favouring gut strings and historical bows, brought to a close the Leicester 2015/2016 season. Amongst other works they gave a performance of a Haydn quartet characterised by a gentle lyrical warmth but which to my taste occasionally underplayed the drama and vim of the work. So, given also that a few present day solo cellists choose to play on gut strings for the warm sound they give, I assumed this concert would be exhibit many of  the same characteristics.

This could not have been wider of the mark. An idea of what one was about to hear might have been had from the quartet’s name, a word describing a particular kind of painting which favours highly dramatic almost brutal contrasts of light and shade. And that is what in musical terms this concert delivered. Vibrato seemed rarely used, there was little lyrical warmth in the sound  (indeed its sharpness was a real shock to the system at the beginning), any romantic phrasing was in short supply, and all of this in two Viennese masterpieces, the first  of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets and Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. On top of that, towards the end of the first movement of the latter, one was reminded why gut strings fell out of use. There was sharp ping as one of the violist’s strings broke and an interval ensued whilst repairs were made. One had to admire the sangfroid of the quartet and the ease with which Humpty Dumpty was put together again both as regards the string and then the performance.

All the above might suggest that the concert took a less than involving march through two classics of the repertoire. In fact, no such thing occured. Indeed, if nothing else it reminded one of the truth that great music is defined by the myriad of possibilities it offers both performer and listener and these performers offered this listener at least a number of revelatory moments. It was surprising how quickly one’s ear adapted to the sparer quartet sound and how the play between instruments had a clarity not always achieved in the balance of the conventional quartet . What was most compelling though was the range of dynamics. The playing at times achieved great dramatic shifts of sound. The violin sound inevitably was less dominating than usual but achieved intense pianissimos. Thus, in moments such as the dramatic trio in the second movement of the Mozart the addition of the full weight of the viola and cello produced a sound hugely greater than the ear had become accustomed to in the performance as a whole. That was also true in the Schubert in the occasional moments in the first and last movements when the composer’s despair almost takes over the music.

Indeed, the comparative lack of a beefy romantic fullness of violin sound and the rarity of overtly romantic phrasing created some very striking effects throughout. In the witty high spirited last movement of the Mozart, what can come across mainly as a chance for some virtuoso violin playing here produced what can only be described as a sense of light scurrying laughter which fitted perfectly the connection the programme note made with Mozartian comic opera. No doubt it was utterly fanciful but I thought it was almost as if one could hear  the composer’s delighted chuckling.

More seriously, time and again in the Schubert the playing  took one not, as can happen in some performances, into something bordering on Viennese schmaltz  but into an entirely different,  almost other worldly sound world that got to the very core of the stoic resignation that could be said to pervade this work.  In the first movement and in the Minuet the music at times took on an almost haunted quality and in the andante, by taking the movement at a good walking pace, the players’ refusal to indulge the famous melody gave it a blithe simplicity which contrasted painfully with so much of the music around it .

So , by the end I came out of the concert mindful of something Rob Cowan said recently when having a rousing argument with a fellow critic who was being ridiculously prescriptive about a particular performance. He recalled the story of Brahms telling players of a new piece of his that their performance was wonderful, and then adding that a recent but very different rendering of the same piece was wonderful as well! There’s wisdom.


News and Events.


October 11thThe opening meeting of the Leicester Music Society, renamed from the Leicester Recorded Music Society to reflect what has de facto been the nature of its talks for many years. Maggie Cotton (ex CBSO Percussionist) pays a return visit in a talk called The Red Light District. Should be interesting!   Visitors are very welcome and the proceedings  begin at 7.30 in the Congregational Church Hall (off London Rd), Springfield Rd. Entrance.


October 18thThe opening concert at DMH of this year’s Philharmonia Residency. Details at the end of the previous review. DMH 7.30.


October 20th. Lunchtime concert featuring those stalwarts of the Leicester scene, Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen in a programme of music for oboe, Cor anglais and piano. New Walk Museum 1.00