The Royal Philharmonic fails to storm Heaven's gate, plus the best of March’s classical concerts
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆
Hiring the capital’s biggest classical venue to play just one spectacularly vast symphony might seem a risky move, but as the Royal Philharmonic has discovered it can pay off. It shows a swaggering confidence, refreshing in these cautious post-pandemic times. And as their performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony last year showed, it can pull in a huge crowd while yielding something artistically sublime.
Last night the orchestra performed the same composer’s 2nd Symphony, which in some ways is a tougher proposition. The Eighth starts with a massive affirmation, whereas the Second starts with a doleful funeral march, before passing through happy memories of the hero’s early life, then a grinning nihilistic dance, before leading to the question: what lies beyond this earthly life? The answer is given by a lone, quiet voice in the final movement: “Believe, my heart… you were not born in vain”, and eventually we are led to a dazzling, deafening vision of eternal life. But though this symphony is called the Resurrection, there’s no Christian faith behind it. What the music seems to say is: we humans can conjure a Heaven, if we believe in it enough.
So everything depends on that final huge revelation from the massed voices and orchestra. If that moment fails to storm Heaven’s gate it’s hard to console ourselves with the thought, “well, the second movement was really lovely.” Unfortunately that is how things turned out last night. The problem was partly that conductor Vasily Petrenko made the opening funeral march feel urgent and harried, when what it really needs is a sense of unbearable slow heaviness. The second movement had the right cushioned delicacy, but the whirling dance of the third movement needed to be more shadowy and savage.
All this meant we weren’t immersed deep enough in the pit of desolation, when the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston expressed a yearning for Heaven, and the hushed voices of the Philharmonia Chorus asserted “Rise, yes you will rise again.” There were some eloquent and moving moments, for example when the noble sound of trumpeter Matthew Williams aspired upwards, entwined with the voices of Johnston and soprano Elizabeth Watts. The Philharmonia Chorus were in fine voice, and the offstage brass and Albert Hall organ seemed appropriately vast. Everything in the performance was unimpeachable; it just lacked that sense of “going for broke” which Mahler’s blazing finale needs if it’s to succeed in conjuring a Heaven from doubt. IH
Arcangelo, Barbican Hall ★★★★☆
As the basis for an evening’s entertainment, Handel’s Theodora may not seem promising. The heroine, a noblewoman in Syria in the third century AD, converts to Christianity in defiance of the Roman authorities; she’s relentlessly noble and pure, with none of the inner conflict that make Handel’s other characters so interesting. All the people around her exist just to reflect and glorify her virtue – apart from the beastly Roman governor who condemns her to life in a brothel. True, she escapes from prison by donning her lover’s clothes, but this potentially exciting episode is glossed over, so as not to disturb the elevated tone.
All this non-drama is relayed in rhyming doggerel that, at last night’s Barbican performance, was displayed in surtitles: helpful, even if it might have been better to leave the words in obscurity. And yet the piece soared, thanks to this performance from the period-instrument orchestra Arcangelo, which turned chilly virtue into radiant lyricism and noble pathos. As Theodora, Louise Alder had exactly the kind of exquisite small voice that makes emotional intensity seem bodiless and chaste. In the aria she sings from prison, she delivered the first two lines beautifully, after which came the lovely aria ‘With darkness deep as is my woe’, in which she allowed her voice to blossom just enough to be touching but not curdle into sensuousness.
The really telling moment in this aria was the huge pause after those opening two lines, which allowed the feeling of dignity and pathos to swell into the infinite and fill our souls. It was one of many such huge silences inserted by conductor Jonathan Cohen at points where normally one hears a brief pause, and it was a shrewd move on his part: it allowed the chaste understatement of the piece to seem vast rather than pinched.
Although it seemed as if Alder were born to play this heroine, she didn’t dominate the stage. Anna Stéphany, as Theodora’s faithful companion Irene, found a different sort of pathos, more humble and less radiant. As the sympathetic Roman Septimius, the tenor Stuart Jackson cut straight to the emotional heart of ‘Descend, kind pity’. Tim Mead (Theodora’s lover Didymus) was nobly anguished, Adam Plachetka (the Roman governor Valens) was refreshingly blunt and vicious.
The chorus of Arcangelo was equally fine in the brief rumbustiousness of the pagan celebrations and the refined dignity of the closing chorus. As for the orchestra, it supplied the essential ingredients of a varied colour palette, together with rhythmic vigour and bite – without which the evening might have seemed pallid. Instead, it did full justice to one of Handel’s noblest creations. IH
RLPO/Manze. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool ★★★☆☆
Mahan Esfahani is a man on a mission: to establish the harpsichord as a concert solo instrument on a par with the piano, violin and others. His latest vehicle is a concerto jointly commissioned from Gavin Bryars by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon. Whether it will help his cause is somewhat doubtful.
Bryars is well known for experimental scores whose titles and concepts – such as The Sinking of the Titanic – tend to sound more interesting than their realisations. What concept lies behind his new concerto was not publicly vouchsafed, perhaps not unconnected with the fact that, according to audience members in the know, the score only reached the soloist some 12 days ago. All we were told was that part of the idea was to give the soloist freedom to add as much or as little ornamentation as he sees fit.
The way the piece emerges from the depths, in a dreamy, suspenseful, lowering soundscape, is certainly promising. At length, the gently elegiac tone – with undulations faintly reminiscent of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead – gives way to perpetual-motion neo-Baroque noodling that is worryingly similar to the lazier scores of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman. The tempo drags itself from moderately slow to moderately fast. Still, all is still not yet lost.
But, from this point, nearly half way into the 26-minute single movement, the attraction begins to wear thin. Solo and orchestral parts are so unrelievedly overlaid that neither gets to speak clearly, and the resolutely undramatic, non-concerto-like gestures become merely tedious. Mahani’s harpsichord, discreetly amplified, made some attractive sounds, and Andrew Manze ensured that the orchestra stuck to the task. But the freedom envisaged by the composer refused to translate into a compelling aural experience.
Sibelius’s First Symphony prefigures Bryars’s concerto, at least in the sense that its romantic, Tchaikovskian urges are masked by a stern outward countenance. But what colossal dramatic tensions result. And what superb musicianship enlivened every phase of Manze’s interpretation, his ear for texture being as acute as his instinct for pacing.
Another performance or two might help bring more polish to parts of the Scherzo. But overall, the orchestra’s response was as vivid and characterful as the conductor’s input. Nor was Mozart’s Paris Symphony in any way a token addition. The first movement balanced energy with grace; the original slow movement left us wondering why Mozart ever bowed to pressure to rewrite it; and the finale, taken at something closer to a Presto than the required Allegro, was exhilarating and uplifting. David Fanning
Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
There was a time when the rule in “contemporary classical music” music was: everything must be oblique, nothing can be direct. Anna Clyne, the 43-year-old British-born New-York-based composer who is currently the Philharmonia’s Featured Composer turns that rule on its head. Nothing in her music is oblique, everything is direct and suffused with a special Clyne magic – as was demonstrated in her new soaring, swooning Clarinet Concerto, which on Thursday night was given its UK premiere.
It was instructive to compare this with two recent works by other composers, played by a bunch of Philharmonia woodwind players in the “Anna Clyne curates” concert that took place before the main event. Seen – by Nathalie Joachim, an American composer of Haitian parentage – was inspired by portraits of unnamed African Americans by the artist Whitfield Lovell. There was a stubbornness in its angular solo melodies, a refusal to agree with the chords beneath, which spoke of an engaging stubbornness in these five unknown people. In Grace-Evangeline Mason’s The Water Garden, inspired by an Amy Lowell poem soaked in garden and water imagery, the high chords – sustained with perfect luminous tuning by the Philharmonia players – entwined tenderly with high harp. It was as delicate as a pressed flower in an album.
Engaging though they were, both pieces at times seemed to tread water. Clyne never treads water. She understands that music’s medium is time, and in her new concerto she handles it with superb assurance so that even in the still moments you could feel direction and energy looming. The soloist Martin Fröst flung showers of jaw-dropping virtuoso over an orchestral panorama that always reminded you of something else: a church chant, a melody of Straussian sweetness, a shiver of orchestral darkness reminiscent of John Williams’s score for Star Wars. But it was done with such guileless chutzpah and skill you couldn’t help but be swept along.
The evening was also notable for the appearance of famed Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto in a new role: conducting. He drew playing of wonderfully impatient passion from the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and fire and pizzazz in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. His talent isn’t yet quite under control – the rapturous melody in Tchaikovsky’s piece felt breathless – but it’s certainly vivid. Kuusisto will surely join the ranks of those musicians who are building a glittering second career on the podium. IH
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Brabbins & Charles Styles, Barbican Hall ★★☆☆☆
When I think of Beowulf I think of bogs and blood-soaked pelts and satanic hallucinations and swords slicing through flesh. I do not think of tambourines. It’s a curious aspect of Iain Bell’s new musical adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon tale of horror and revenge. Instead of exhuming the work from the pungent, squelchy depths of the orchestra – as someone like the late great Harrison Birtwistle might have done – Bell lets this primordial story float messily in the highest registers, and crowns it with a sprinkling of sparkly percussion more suited to a John Lewis advert.
Sure, the piece swooshes around in a perfectly plausible dramatic manner, but it’s generic. We could have been listening to the adventures of Babar or Buzz Lightyear as much as Beowulf.
Bell’s forces are enviably vast: including a large choir, four percussionists and a small army of winds (usually a sign of good times). But there's no point in having such a palette if all you’re going to do is smoosh everything together.
The story trundled along clearly enough. The narrator Ruth Wilson was heroically unobjectionable. The tenor soloist Charles Styles excelled, stepping in for an indisposed Stuart Skelton at the last minute, and navigating some treacherous high climbs. A prosaic translation by RM Liuzza was in use rather than Seamus Heaney’s more celebrated poetic one.
It was a masterpiece of toothlessness. Every chance to be inoffensive was greedily snatched up. And with no threat in the air, the inevitable simplification that was required to condense the epic into a 45-minute oratorio made things irredeemably babyish.
There was one neat bit of orchestration, when we scudded through the misty sea on foamy strings, muted and forte. But most of the aural images – the decapitation of chief foe Grendel, say – were depicted with plodding fidelity, with a metallic swipe of a tam-tam or a ghostly bow of a waterphone, as if Bell was nailing some foley for a Netflix drama.
Undemanding without being instinctive, ingratiating without being generous, the work was worse than bad. It left me feeling nothing. It was as vivid as a trip to Caffe Nero.
Vaughan Williams’s ballet Job in the second half made all this even more stark. Such clarity, freshness, nobility, strangeness, big washes of colour, awesome climaxes: unlike Beowulf there was no chasing after cheap, fleeting images here. This was deepest myth, made deeply real. From the peaty trudge of the opening bars to the extraordinary horizon point of the final double-bass note, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Martyn Brabbins, were as tender as they were quietly devastating. Igor Toronyi-Lalic
LPO/Canellakis, Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆
Innumerable concerts have been disrupted in recent years, owing to huge events beyond anyone’s control. Last week’s non-appearance by the Russian virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov was due to something much more mundane: sheer incompetence. The Foreign Office didn’t quite get round to issuing his visa, despite being given several months’ notice. This meant that Trifonov missed a Wigmore Hall date as well as the LPO’s concert on Wednesday, when he was due to play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.
But every cloud has its silver lining. In this case, it was the chance to hear the Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko, who proved to be a more than worthy deputy for the flamboyantly virtuoso Russian. Kholodenko is far from flamboyant – in fact, he sidled on with ostentatious modesty, eyes firmly fixed on the floor. It made you wonder whether Prokofiev’s enormously extrovert piece, with its madly difficult pirouettes and leaps liberally sauced with sarcasm and diabolical mischief, would be exactly his thing.
I won’t say Kholodenko made the piece seem introvert and thoughtful – no-one could do that. But he certainly cast a new light on it, making those runs seem delicately precise rather than savage. The leaping chords at the beginning of the Finale still had bite, but it was a Siamese cat’s needle-sharp nip rather than a bear’s giant chomp. True, some things, such as the weird puppet-like melody that emerges from nowhere in the Finale, were less strikingly weird than usual, but that was all to the good. It revealed a poised, almost neo-classical side to this piece, which normally stays hidden.
Conductor Karina Canellakis and the LPO were wonderfully alert and supportive accompanists but shone less brightly in their own contributions to the evening. There was an overall feeling of unyielding rigour, which sort of worked for Beethoven’s grimly tragic Coriolan overture but didn’t at all suit Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
Perhaps Canellakis was trying to rescue the piece from its reputation for sentimental bombast by emphasising its fateful, iron quality, and refusing to give way to the temptation to pull back the tempo as a big swooning melody approached. Which is a noble aim, but she took it too far, so the performance felt breathless and cramped. It proved that the line between sentimentality and “real” emotion is very fine, and in striving to eliminate the one you can end up stifling the other as well. IH
Chineke!, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★☆
That exclamation mark says it all. Chineke!, Europe’s first black-majority orchestra, likes to startle and amaze with the sheer joyousness of its music-making. And also with its sense of mission, still burning after eight years of existence. It wants to show that it is part of the great river of classical music, while also being passionate about revealing long-hidden black composers and encouraging the black composers of tomorrow.
Thursday night’s concert, given on the eve of the orchestra’s first North American tour, was focused emphatically on the second of those aims. Fate Now Conquers by American composer Carlos Simon takes as its inspiration a phrase from Virgil’s Iliad that Beethoven found comforting, about Fate being all-powerful and yet not powerful enough to snuff out the memory of great deeds. Under the music’s pulsing rhythms and sudden shifts, nicely poised between oppression and optimism, one could discern a hint of Beethoven’s own Seventh symphony.
After that, the evening was all smiles. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto is so overflowing with melodic invention and so shining and buoyant in its orchestration one can only wonder why the piece hasn’t always been a popular favourite. It also has that typical Coleridge-Taylor quality of nobility softened by sweetness, beautifully caught by the soloist Elena Urioste. It was only in the moments of extravagant virtuosity that I felt she needed to strike a more heroic tone. The orchestra under visiting American conductor Andrew Grams was delicate and flexible in support, and full-blooded when it took centre-stage.
After the interval came the First Symphony by Florence Price, the black American composer who was sidelined by the racism of the American classical music scene in her lifetime, and is now enjoying a triumphant revival. The open-spaces lyricism of the very beginning, evoking some Africa of Price’s imagination tinged with spirituals and even a memory of Dvóřak, was not so far from Coleridge-Taylor. But her imagination was wilder, especially in the magnificent second movement.
This launched off as a grand spiritual, sumptuously played by Chineke!’s brass, but the central section carries us into unexpected places, including a tumult of Wagnerian harmony and a dazzling moment of virtuoso fireworks for the first violins. Just occasionally the tuning went a touch awry, but the grandeur, good-humour and – there’s no other word – loveableness of the music came over loud and clear. If the coming tour of Britain and North America is on this level, it will be a triumph. IH
Touring until June; chineke.org
London Sinfonietta, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★☆
To the wider world, Harrison Birtwistle, who died last year, was the reliably curmudgeonly grand old man of British musical modernism; up close, he was much more complex, a diminutive bearded figure like some woodland elf come indoors, who bred turtles, cooked wonderful Italian dishes, loved melancholy and the night, and was obsessed with Greek myths and English folk tales.
Something of that complication came over in this memorial concert given by the London Sinfonietta, the orchestra that commissioned no fewer than 21 pieces from him beginning with Verses for Ensemble in 1969 (commissioned by the orchestra’s founder Nicholas Snowman, who died on Thursday – so this performance, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, was in memory of him too). We heard that piece, alongside four others that spanned the whole of his career.
The first piece Duet 1 (The Message) flung us into Birtwistle’s world with blistering force, as trumpet player Christian Barraclough and clarinetist Mark van de Wiel hurled phrases at each other at higher and higher pitch and volume until brutally cut off by a drum roll. It was wildly impassioned, and yet completely enigmatic – a very Birtwistle combination. His arrangement of a 14th-century vocal piece Sus en Fontayne was similarly stark, the muted brass and squeaking clarinets pulling the piece unceremoniously into the modern era.
And then came that 1969 breakthrough piece, in which players arranged in fan-shaped tiers of percussion brass and woodwind created an ever-shifting musical mobile. We heard a sinister muted brass choral here set against a menacing woodwind twittering there, while at the back deafening percussion loosed volleys of notes before suddenly falling silent. Birtwistle added a layer of visual geometry to the musical one, with players constantly on the move.
Impressive though it is, the piece has the doctrinaire rigidity of a young man out to demonstrate something, and perhaps wasn’t the best piece to programme – especially as the later commission In Broken Images of 2011 has a similar kaleidoscopic quality but has the ease of an “old master”. The interplay of woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion was much more playful, with an amusing quality of a musical machine running out of kilter.
All this was played with edge-of-the-seat electric energy by the Sinfonietta and Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble. But the heart of the evening for me was Fields of Sorrow from 1972, an evocation of that twilight realm where the Shades live in sad, aqueous sounds of vibraphone, piano and low clarinets, while the excellent Londinium choir and sopranos Abigail Sinclair and Lisa Dafydd intoned the ancient Latin text with just the right feeling of tender desolation. It was a reminder that when not bending our ears, Birtwistle can also touch our hearts. IH
Nina Stemme, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
When the world’s greatest Wagnerian soprano forgoes the goddess’s helmet and spear and steps on to the concert platform for an evening of song, it’s hard not to feel that the shade of Brünnhilde somehow steps on to it with her. You expect heroism rather than intimacy, mad uninhibited passion rather than subtle shades of emotion.
And yet intimacy and subtle shades are what song is designed for. And there was certainly plenty of scope for that in the programme Swedish soprano Nina Stemme chose for her Wigmore Hall recital. There were the Wesendonck lieder, five songs Wagner wrote as studies for his opera Tristan and Isolde, which are full of drowsy evocations of dreams and rain-soaked nature and “weeping suns”. There were Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder – “Songs on the Death of Children” – which are often tender and radiant, and a rarely heard set of songs from 1916 by Sigurd von Koch that sounded like Mahler crossed with uncanny modernist accents. These were based on Chinese texts which describe sad autumns and blossom and the mysterious flute of the title song.
But there are also surges of aching passion and protest and anger in these songs, and it was these that brought out Stemme’s full glory as an artist. It’s not that she never sang quietly, it’s more that when she did sing quietly there was still an epic grandeur of tone that would easily have reached the back of the Metropolitan Opera house.
In Wagner’s songs, which project feelings of loss onto a cosmic, almost impersonal level, that seemed exactly right. She stood there, statuesque in a burgundy dress, and simply poured out a stream of burnished, dark vocal sound that never really changed, except on rare occasions when she flipped briefly to a light floaty tone for memories of a happier time, or visions of the heaven that will greet the dead child. What Stemme doesn’t do is gradations of softness.
But one hardly noticed, because her excellent pianist Magnus Svensson supplied so much nuance and fluttering gradations of sound. And if Stemme’s voice lacked vulnerability, the great actress in her certainly expressed it. The sense of baffled wonder in von Kurch’s vision of lotus blossom was beautifully caught, but the evening’s most moving moment came in Kurt Weill’s Surabaya Johnny, when Stemme seemed to express the fury and sorrow of every abandoned woman. It felt as if the goddess had at last consented to be human. IH
Britten Sinfonia, The Halls Norwich ★★★★☆
And the band played on. The shocking and unexpected 100 per cent cut to the Britten Sinfonia’s Arts Council grant, imposed last autumn, has only galvanised the ensemble. That much was clear from Wednesday evening’s concert, performed to a full house at The Halls in Norwich, and though there has never been any obvious room for improvement in the group’s outstanding artistry, they certainly played as if their lives depended on it.
The audience evidently depends, in turn, on them. Cuts to opera may have grabbed the headlines, but the Britten Sinfonia is the only orchestra serving East Anglia, which makes ACE’s vandalism even more inexplicable. The good news is that the ensemble is not giving up. Next week sees the launch of its Play On fundraising campaign; expect to see some high-profile support.
Designed to showcase two contrasting cello concertos played by the rising star Laura van der Heijden, this programme was straightforward in its impact. The fact that these concertos were written more than 250 years apart only underlined the breadth of the ensemble’s repertoire. The Cello Concerto in A minor by CPE Bach dates from 1750, the year his father JS Bach died, and shows the younger composer’s daring inventiveness. Van der Heijden projected soulful, warm tone in an opening where the cello tames the restlessness of the orchestra – music that must have startled listeners in its day.
Mirroring this neatly, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for Cello and Strings (2008) gets off to a hyper-energetic start in which the soloist joins the orchestra in highly integrated writing, though at times van der Heijden’s cello emerged quite hypnotically from those textures. The Bulgarian-British composer writes folk-inflected music of a luminosity sounding somewhat like Arvo Pärt on speed. The second and third movements overdo the rapture a little, but at its best – for instance, where the first movement, having expended all its energy, comes to rest in a rich chorale – this music is haunting.
The concert had opened with JS Bach, and apart from the harpsichord here in his Brandenburg Concerto No 3, it was a strings-only evening. Clio Gould directed from the violin, and she ensured playing of precision and poise. The textures in Grieg’s Holberg Suite, at the end of the evening, were uncommonly buoyant too, full of wit and energy from players who communicated pure enjoyment. Rather than being cut loose by government stooges, the Britten Sinfonia ought to enjoy national-treasure status. JA
No further performances. Info: brittensinfonia.com
The English Concert, Barbican, London EC2 ★★★☆☆
When that fine “early music” orchestra The English Concert decided to reproduce Handel’s first philanthropic concert, given in 1749, they could hardly have guessed it would seem so topical. One of the pieces played on that occasion was the Music for the Royal Fireworks, written to celebrate a new dawn in Britain’s relations with Europe. “Peace! Rejoicing!” say those horns and trumpets and thundering kettle-drums. On Tuesday evening, the day after the unveiling of the “Windsor framework”, I half expected Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen to descend on a golden chariot.
The concert was topical for another reason. Handel is now under a cloud because he invested in the Royal African Company, one of Britain’s two official slave-trading enterprises. That hardly made him unusual; what was unusual was his perseverance in supporting good causes. The 1749 concert, which was given in support of the new Foundling Hospital, was only the first of many.
So it was good to be reminded of Handel’s generous nature, and it isn’t surprising that a handsome sum was raised, because the music was all top-drawer. As well as the Fireworks Music, we heard the Foundling Hospital Anthem, which muses on God’s blessings towards the charitable. You might say that that was a tad smug on Handel’s part, but in this performance by the open, frank voice of tenor James Way and similarly open-hearted alto Ann Hallenberg, one felt one’s scepticism dropping away. When the closing Hallelujah Chorus arrived – Handel cannily re-investing one of his most popular pieces – several members of the audience stood up, echoing King George II’s springing to his feet on that occasion. (It may have been prompted by a twinge of gout, but it’s a good story nonetheless.)
All that, plus the fresh-voiced young Clarion Choir from New York, the players of the English Concert led by Harry Bicket on top form, and the graceful dance rhythms, meant there was much to enjoy. Yet the main item – a selection of numbers from the oratorio Solomon which praise the King’s wisdom in deciding between the claims of two women for the same baby – refused to catch fire. The Cuban soprano Elena Villalón was sweet-voiced and beautifully focused as the Queen of Sheba, but Miah Persson and Niamh O’Sullivan as the warring Harlots seemed only half-engaged. The underlying problem was that the excerpts were too short to make dramatic sense. A concert designed to part 18th-century grandees from their money is one thing; a concert to satisfy a modern audience is quite another. IH